The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens

USDA proposes healthier school meal nutrition rule


WASHINGTON — School meals could get healthier under a proposed rule to update the nutrition standards for national school breakfast and meal programs, changing food purchasing patterns as early as next fall. The Agriculture Department published the proposed rule in the Federal Register today.

The rule has been in development for several years, but USDA published it now because the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed by Congress and signed by President Obama in December will provide additional resources to the schools, Vilsack said in a call to reporters. USDA is seeking input on the proposed rule from the public through April 13, but Vilsack said he hopes schools will begin to make changes by the beginning of the new school year next fall.

USDA’s Food and Nutrition encourages those interested in reviewing the proposal and offering comments to do so at

The proposed meal requirements will raise standards for the first time in 15 years, and will make critical changes to help improve the health and nutrition of nearly 32 million children who eat school meals every school day, Vilsack said.

“The United States is facing an obesity epidemic and the crisis of poor diets threatens the future of our children — and our nation,” he said. “With many children consuming as many as half their daily calories at school, strengthening nutritional standards is an important step in the Obama administration’s effort to combat childhood obesity and improve the health and well-being of all our kids.”

The proposed changes to school meal standards, which would add more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat milk, are based on recommendations released in October 2009 by the National Academies’ Institute of Medicine (IOM) and presented in their report, “School Meals: Building Blocks for Healthy Children.“ Schools would also be required to limit the levels of saturated fat, sodium, calories, and trans fats in meals. The guidelines would not limit sugar because the report did not focus on that food item, Agriculture Undersecretary for Food and Nutrition Services Kevin Concannon said.

A comparison of the proposed nutrition standards can be viewed here.

The rule is expected to have an impact on agriculture by changing schools’ purchasing patterns, although changes in the types of foods they buy within each group and the methods used to prepare those foods may be greater than actual changes in what the schools buy. Vilsack also said that USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service “would work overtime” to try to bring school vending machines and a la carte line food offerings in line with the guidelines so there is a constituency of what kind of food children get in schools.

The United Fresh Produce Association said in a news release that it is “cheering” the proposal.

“Fruits and vegetables really are the stars of this proposed rule,” said Lorelei DiSogra, United’s vice president of nutrition and health. “We are pleased that the proposed rule will double the amount of fruit served at breakfast, double the amount of fruits and vegetables served at lunch and increase variety.”

The School Nutrition Association, which represents school meal providers who will be responsible for implementing the new standards, said it “welcomed” the standards, but would review the details. SNA said its school trends survey found that, despite rising costs, schools nationwide are serving more fresh produce, whole grains and low-fat dairy products and are making strides in reducing added sodium and sugar in foods served in the lunch line.

Corey Henry of the American Frozen Food Institute said that the standard’s “limit allowing only one cup of starchy vegetables (white potatoes, corn … etc.) per week is less than ideal. However, overall the new standard will greatly boost the use of frozen fruits (with no added sugar) and vegetables given the new emphasis on fruit and vegetable consumption, so we see that as a positive.”

Apparently recognizing fears that children may reject the healthier foods, Vilsack said that sodium would be reduced slowly, noting that chefs around the country would work with schools to try to come up with tasty meals. He also suggested that community groups might want to provide new cooking equipment to schools so that they can prepare foods without frying them. The economic stimulus package provided $100 million for new school cooking equipment, and the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act authorized more funding, but Congress would have to appropriate the additional money.

The new bill provides an additional 6 cents per meal in federal reimbursements, but some school officials have complained that the new standards will raise costs beyond that. But Vilsack suggested today that schools could work with other institutions such as hospitals to increase their purchasing power. “There are creative ways to stretch the current food budgets that schools have,” he said.

Concannon also noted that FNS is working with schools to encourage purchasing foods from local farmers. Vilsack said that the changes could make the general public appreciate farmers more as people realize that the farmers are providing nutritious food for school children.

According to government data, almost 32 percent of children 6 to 19 years of age are overweight or obese; the number of obese children in this age range has trebled in the last few decades, USDA said. These children are more likely to have risk factors associated with chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and Type 2 diabetes, the agency added.

Vilsack noted that increased physical activity is vital to reducing obesity and that First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative emphasizes exercise as well as changing eating habits.