By Nanci Hellmich, USA TODAY
Students: Get ready for pizza with whole-grain crust and bigger portions of fruits and vegetables on your school lunch tray. You're still going to get french fries, but they'll probably be baked and sprinkled with less salt.
Today the government is releasing new nutrition standards for school meals that spell out dramatic changes, including slashing sodium, limiting calories and offering students a wider variety and larger portions of fruits and vegetables. These changes will raise the nutrition standards for meals for the first time in more than 15 years.
"When we send our kids to school, we expect that they won't be eating the kind of fatty, salty, sugary foods that we try to keep them from eating at home," first lady Michelle Obama said in a statement. She is announcing the new standards today along with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
Vilsack says this is a historic opportunity "to improve the quality and quantity of the school meal programs."
The quality of school meals has been hotly debated for years because one-third of children in the USA are overweight or obese. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set new nutrition standards for all food served in schools. The rules released today apply to school meals; regulations for other foods such those served in à la carte lines, vending machines and stores will come later.
The changes are designed to improve the health of nearly 32 million children who eat lunch at school every day and almost 11 million who eat breakfast. Overall, kids consume about 30% to 50% of their calories while at school. The new standards for school lunch:
•Establish maximum calorie and sodium limits for meals. The sodium limits are phased in over 10 years.
•Require schools to serve a fruit and vegetable every day at lunch and in larger portions than offered before. Portion sizes vary by age group. For instance, high school students will have to be offered one cup of vegetables and one cup of fruit a day. Right now they have to be offered a total of three-quarters cup of fruit and vegetables.
•Require schools to offer a minimum number of leafy green vegetables, red-orange vegetables, starchy vegetables and legumes each week. The amount varies by age group. For example, high school students have to be offered at least a half-cup of green leafy vegetables a week.
•Require that after the two years of implementation, all grains offered to students must be rich in whole grains such as brown rice. Breads, buns, cereals and pastas must list whole grain as the first ingredient.
•Require milk to be either low-fat (1%) or fat-free. (That is already in effect.) Flavored milk, such as chocolate, must now be fat-free.
•Require that foods that are served contain no trans fats.
The new standards for lunch take effect the next school year. Changes for breakfast will be phased in.
Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest says the changes "are landmark. These are the first-ever standards for sodium, trans fat and whole grains and the first time ever they've had an upper limit for calories."
Congress blocked the proposal to restrict starchy vegetables, and it required that pizza continue to count as a vegetable, she says.
The federal government will give schools an additional 6 cents a lunch to meet the standards. When the rules are fully implemented, the cost of preparing a healthier lunch that meets the new rules is estimated to rise by about 11 cents, and the cost of preparing a breakfast is estimated to increase by 28 cents, the USDA says. The agency estimates that the increased cost of producing meals that meet the standard will be $3.2 billion over five years.
Vilsack says companies that supply commodities to the USDA already are responding to the standards by offering foods that are lower in fat, sugar and sodium. Frozen fried potatoes are being replaced with potatoes that have been roasted or baked, he says.
Many schools already have made improvements. "These are all goals school nutrition professionals have been working toward, and these national nutrition standards will ensure that every student has access to a healthy meal in the cafeteria," says Diane Pratt-Heavner of the School Nutrition Association.
Schools must meet the standards to get federal reimbursements for meals, she says. They now receive $2.77 from the federal government for every child who is on the free-lunch program. "Healthy food costs more, so school programs will have to find ways to meet the standards while staying within their budget."