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New school lunch standards served up for fall 2012

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First Lady Michelle Obama enjoys a healthy lunch with students at the Parklawn Elementary School in Alexandria, Va., Wednesday. (Helena Bottemiller/Food Safety News)

By JERRY HAGSTROM

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — First Lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack visited an elementary school here today to unveil new school meal standards intended to improve the health and nutrition of children by increasing offerings of fruits, vegetables and whole grain foods, limiting milk to fat-free and low-fat varieties, ensuring proper portion size by age, and reducing the amounts of saturated fats, trans fats and sodium.

The rule will be published in the Federal Register on Thursday and will take effect at the beginning of the fall 2012 school year. The Agriculture Department has already reviewed 132,000 comments, and this version of the rule final.

The school meal standards are one of the signature accomplishments of the Obama administration and are based on authorization under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which was passed in late 2010 when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.

Last year, Congress passed a law preventing the administration from limiting the amount of potatoes that can be served and from ruling that pizza sauce could not qualify as a vegetable serving, but administration officials and nutrition advocates said today the new rule is a major improvement in nutrition standards.

“This is a red-letter day for America’s children,” Vilsack said, adding that the improved nutrition would be a necessary component in fulfilling President Barack Obama’s State of the Union commitment to “an America built to last.” The standards are the first change in 15 years and will affect the 32 million children who eat school meals daily.

Michelle Obama

First Lady Michelle Obama
“This isn’t just about our kids’ health,” the first lady said after thanking advocates and parents for their help in passing the bill. “Studies have shown that our kids’ eating habits can actually affect their academic performance as well. 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.”

She asked parents, educators and food service workers to embrace healthier eating.

“If we get pumped up about this effort, get excited, get creative, the kids will follow suit and they will do it with vigor and vim, and they’ll be out there out front in a way that we would never expect,” she said.

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Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at lunch Wednesday with elementary school children in Alexandria, Va. (Helena Bottemiller/Food Safety News)

After the news conference, the first lady and Vilsack sat down with the children at the Parklawn Elementary School, which has 780 students coming from backgrounds speaking 38 languages. About 60 percent qualify for free or reduced-price meals, according to school officials.

The lunch met the new guidelines: turkey tacos with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, salsa, Mexican brown rice and whole-grain flat bread; black bean and corn salad, mixed fresh fruit (a choice between strawberries, kiwis and orange or melon and cantaloupe) and low-fat or fat-free milk.

“I love brown rice!,” Obama said as she took her tray. “That's all we eat at home.”

After picking up her kid-sized bowl of corn salad, she added, “This is the best part — veggies!”

Kevin Concannon

Kevin Concannon
When the rule was proposed, schools had complained that the foods with higher nutritional values would cost more. Kevin Concannon, the Agriculture undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, noted in a call to reporters today that USDA had reduced the final cost of the new rule from an estimated $6.8 billion over five years to $3.2 billion over five years.

The increased costs are expected to be covered by the 6 cents per school lunch that schools will get, plus requirements that schools gradually increase the cost of lunches for middle-class children and charge the full cost of a la carte meals. In addition, USDA has eliminated the requirement that at least one ounce of meat or meat equivalent be served with school breakfast and is phasing in changes to that program over three years.

Although the battles over potatoes and pizza sauce as a vegetable were bitter, both nutritionists and administration officials sound ecstatic today over the rule.

Margo Wootan

Margo Wootan
“It’s the strongest school nutrition standard ever,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Even though she had lobbied for the schools to be required to serve a vegetable in addition to the tomato paste on pizza, Wootan said the pizza would be more nutritious because it would have a whole-grain crust and contain less sodium.

“It’s a huge step in the right direction,” added Jessica Donze Black of the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Food Project, which is a collaboration between the Pew Charitable Trust and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“Fruits and vegetables will be the stars of healthier school meals,” said Lorelei DiSogra, vice president for nutrition and health at the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, the leading industry lobbyist behind the effort to pass the bill and maintain strict standards during implementation. “Increasing children’s consumption of fruits and vegetables will improve their health and reduce their risk of childhood obesity,” she added.

“I am confident we have a core set of healthy diets for children,” Concannon told reporters.

Although the National Potato Council convinced Congress to stop USDA from limiting potatoes, the group appears to be worried that Concannon’s final rule may reduce potato consumption.

“We are concerned that, just as in the proposed regulations, USDA’s final rule falls short of giving schools flexibility in the breakfast program to meet nutritional goals within their constrained budgets,” Executive Vice President and CEO John Keeling said in a news release.

“The rule’s prescriptive nature in promoting certain groups of vegetables over others will increase costs while handcuffing local schools’ abilities to meet USDA’s nutrition, caloric, fat and sodium requirements,” Keeling said. “We look forward to working with school food service professionals around the country as they evaluate the final rule and work to increase vegetable consumption by students at both breakfast and lunch.”

Jerry Kozak

Jerry Kozak
Dairy producers had urged USDA to allow schools to serve low-fat chocolate milk, but the final rule says only fat-free milk can be flavored.

Today National Milk Producers Federation President and CEO Jerry Kozak praised USDA for requiring that low-fat or fat-free milk remain a part of every school meal. He said that while his group would have preferred allowing low-fat flavored milk, “it’s essential that chocolate milk, in particular, remain available in school cafeterias to assure children are getting the nutrients milk provides.”

Groups that had favored improved nutrition but worried about the costs said today that USDA had improved the final rule.

“Based on the comment process, USDA has addressed in the final rule some of the practicality and cost issues, while striving for consistency with the Institute of Medicine’s final recommendations,” Food Research and Action Center President Jim Weill said in a statement. He added that FRAC wants to make sure the programs reach eligible, hungry children.

Frank DiPasquale

Frank DiPasquale
Frank DiPasquale, CEO of the School Nutrition Association, which represents school meal preparers, said in a news release that USDA has devoted much time and effort to develop the new meal pattern.

“Throughout this arduous process, School Nutrition Association conveyed the challenges and limitations of school nutrition directors and industry partners as they work to provide healthier choices for America’s students,” he said. DiPasquale also said SNA looks forward to working with schools that face financial difficulties in meeting the standards.

Sam Kass, the deputy White House chef and nutrition adviser, said in the call to reporters with Concannon that some schools across the country have already met the standards without the increased federal funding and requirements.

But, Kass noted, “The change will have to occur incrementally, as it does in our own households.”