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USDA To Require Healthier Meals In Schools With Updated Nutrition Standards

Jan 25, 2012
Originally published on January 30, 2012 5:46 pm

Less salt and fat. More whole grains, fruit, veggies and low-fat dairy. This is what kids can expect in the school lunchroom soon, according to new nutrition standards for school meals announced today by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and first lady Michelle Obama.

"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," Obama said in a statement. "We want the food they get at school to be the same kind of food we would serve at our own kitchen tables."

And remember all the political shenanigans over pizza as a veggie? Yes, pizza can technically still count as one serving of veggies. But that slice of pizza won't be served alone. The new standards call for two servings of vegetables per meal. So the pizza will come with a side of carrots or green beans.

Chocolate milk made the cut, too, although from here on out it will be skim, according to a sample menu created to show what the new standards will look like once implemented.

"The new school standards are a terrific step forward," Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest told The Salt. "And they would have been even better if Congress had not meddled."

One example: French fries. Originally, the USDA proposed a standard that would have limited servings of the starchy potato. But Wootan explains that the potato lobby found friends in Congress to help scrap that provision. The result: French fries will likely remain a staple of the school cafeteria. But they're likely to be a little less salty.

Another change in store: setting limits on total calories for a meal. While there are still many children at risk of food insecurity or hunger, there's also the competing challenge of obesity. In trying to balance these concerns, the USDA decided to set a calorie range.

For instance, the USDA say elementary school kids should receive lunches between 550 and 650 calories, which is about one-third of daily recommended calories.

The price tag on the changes? $3.2 billion over the next five years, the agency says. But schools will get some help with those costs from the government — included in the package announced today is an increase of 6 cents per meal in reimbursement funds for schools. This is the first increase in reimbursement funds in 30 years.

Nearly 32 million kids participate in school meal programs every school day. In addition to revamping nutrition standards, USDA also recently began encouraging schools to partner with local farms to get more fresh fruits and vegetables into the lunchroom.

UPDATE 5:30 P.M.

The first lady used a visit to a school cafeteria in Alexandria, Va., to talk about the new standards. And she also took the opportunity to nudge parents and teachers to be role models for their kids. She says that around her house, when she gets excited about something, her daughters get pumped up, too. And she says, in her experience, kids adapt to change so easily. "That's the beauty," she says.

As she pushed her tray down the lunch line and picked up the turkey tacos served with fresh salsa, brown rice, and whole grain flat bread, she told the kids that she has gotten her family into the habit of eating brown rice. And they all like it.

Parents who attended the first lady's announcement at Parklawn Elementary say the nice thing about the healthy changes is that the school isn't scraping kids' favorite dishes. So for these elementary school kids, school food is cool.

"My son loves the taco," says Ellisa Simmons, mom to a kindergartner. And the switch to lower-fat meat, brown rice and healthier sides isn't a big change.

Simmons says she's pretty sure the school lunch is better than what she can manage to pack in a brown bag.

"We're always so pressed for time," Simmons says, that it would be hard to get two veggies in a packed lunch. And with such healthy options at school, she says she won't even bother packing one.

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And I'm Robert Siegel.

The school taco is getting a makeover. Today, the USDA released new school lunch standards. They trimmed salt, sugar and portion sizes to make lunch healthier. First Lady Michelle Obama was on hand at an elementary school in Alexandria, Virginia for a taste test.

NPR's Allison Aubrey has the story.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: As the first lady slid her tray down the lunch line with a bunch of students at Parklawn Elementary, she scooped up the brown rice turkey tacos served with fresh salsa on whole grain flatbread.

MICHELLE OBAMA: This is so nice. It's so well prepared. Oh, I love it.

AUBREY: And she says this is what a meal is supposed to look like. Lots of color, lots of taste, but lighter on fat, calories and salt. Talking to parents who'd gathered at the school, the first lady says these new standards, which also mandate two servings of veggies per meal, aren't only about combating obesity. They're also about helping kids stay sharp mentally in the classroom, avoiding those mid-afternoon sugar crashes. And, hopefully, she says, the standards will help reinforce the messages lots of moms and dads have been trying to drill into kids' heads about good nutrition.

OBAMA: When we send our kids to school, we have a right to expect that they won't be eating the kind of fatty, salty, sugary foods that we're trying to keep from them when they're at home.

AUBREY: More than 32 million kids participate in school meal programs every day and advocates who've been pushing for healthier meals say this is progress, though the rules are not as aggressive as the Obama administration had hoped for.

Margo Wootan directs nutrition efforts at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

MARGO WOOTAN: It's a huge step forward. These new school meal standards will mean much healthier foods on our kids' lunch trays.

AUBREY: Even though the trays will continue to carry servings of French fries and pizza, Wootan says the U.S. Department of Agriculture was not able to finalize a provision that would have restricted servings of French fries, nor were they able to cancel out a rule that allows schools to count pizza as a vegetable. On these issues, she says Congress and powerful food lobbyists prevailed.

WOOTAN: Under the new standards, even though USDA wasn't able to do what they wanted to do around limiting French fries and not counting pizza as a vegetable anymore, there still will be healthier pizza in the school lunch.

AUBREY: It'll have a whole grain, be lower in sodium and fat and it will need to be served with another vegetable. The USDA estimates that the price tag for new nutrition standards will total about $3.2 billion over the next five years, with many of the changes being phased in gradually. But Diane Pratt-Heavner of the School Nutrition Association says school food directors are already trying creative ways to win students over on healthier eating.

DIANE PRATT-HEAVNER: We're seeing more schools with salad bars and student taste tests and Harvest of the Month programs that they're really trying to encourage kids to expand their pallets and try fruits and vegetables that they might not have encountered at home.

AUBREY: As for mom, Ellisa Simmons, who attended the first lady's announcement today, she says these new lunches, especially the two servings of vegetables, will be better than what she usually manages to pack for her son.

ELLISA SIMMONS: We're always so pressed for time. You just throw here and there. You figure one is good enough.

AUBREY: So, Simmons says, from now on, her son will be eating the school lunch.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.