|Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and First Lady Michelle Obama have lunch with students at Parklawn Elementary School|
America’s school-aged children will have twice the amounts of fruits and vegetables on their school lunch trays, as well as more whole grains, and less sodium and trans fat, under the new nutrition standards for school meals unveiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Despite heavy lobbying by the food industry and Congressional interference, the new standards are the best ever, according to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest.
“The new school meal standards are one of the most important advances in nutrition in decades,” said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. “They’re much needed, given high childhood obesity rates and the poor state of our children’s diets.”
Approximately 32 million children eat school lunches and breakfasts, providing half of many children’s daily calories, according to USDA. The standards released yesterday were mandated by Congress in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, signed into law by President Obama in late 2010.
"This isn’t just about our kids’ health. Studies have shown that our kids’ eating habits can actually affect their academic performance as well," First Lady Michelle Obama said at a ceremony at Parklawn Elementary School in Alexandria, Va., where the new standards were released. "Anyone who works with kids knows that they need something other than chips and soda in their stomachs if they're going to focus on math and science, right? Kids can’t be expected to sit still and concentrate when they’re on a sugar high, or when they’re stuffed with salty, greasy food -- or when they’re hungry."
In the next month or two, USDA will propose regulations setting nutrition standards for the rest of the foods sold in schools, including through vending machines, school stores, and the a la carte foods sold in the cafeteria alongside the USDA-reimbursed meal.
Although health groups praise the new standards, food industry lobbyists got Congress to prevent USDA from limiting French fries and ensure that pizza counts as a serving of vegetables due to its tomato paste.
“USDA, states, school officials, food manufacturers, food service workers, and parents need to work together to help all schools meet the new standards,” Wootan said.
The rules set calorie maximums for the first time and lower calorie minimums to better ensure that school meals address obesity, as well as hunger. All milk sold in schools will have to be low-fat or fat-free. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act will provide schools with additional funding, training, model menus and recipes, healthy product specifications for commodities, and more frequent reviews to ensure that school systems comply with the new standards.