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USDA Calls for Strict New Guidelines for School Lunches

January 13, 2011

School children would have to hold the fries — and pick up more whole grains, fruits and vegetables — on the lunch line under proposed new federal standards for school lunches.

The new standards from the Agriculture Department would be the first major nutritional overhaul of school meals in 15 years. They are expected to be announced Thursday.

The guidelines would require schools to cut sodium in those meals by more than half, use only whole grains and serve low fat milk. It also would limit kids to only one cup of starchy vegetables a week, so schools couldn’t offer french fries every day.

The USDA’s new regulations do not require congressional approval to take effect and, when finalized, schools will be required to meet the standards to qualify for government reimbursement on school meals.

This is the “first major improvement” in the standards that “we’ve seen in a generation, and it reflects the seriousness of the issue of obesity,” says Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Currently, roughly one-third of children and adolescents are considered obese or overweight.  Vilsack believes that addressing the childhood obesity problem will help with future medical costs and national security, as many young adults are too out of shape to serve in the military.

USA Today outlines some of the proposed rule’s new requirements:

Decrease the amount of starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, corn and green peas, to one cup a week.

Reduce sodium in meals over the next 10 years. A high school lunch now has about 1,600 milligrams of sodium. Through incremental changes, that amount should be lowered over the next decade to 740 milligrams or less of sodium for grades through 9 through 12; 710 milligrams or less for grades 6 through 8; 640 milligrams or less for kindergarten through fifth grades.

Establish calorie maximums and minimums for the first time. For lunch: 550 to 650 calories for kindergarten through fifth grade; 600 to 700 for grades 6 through 8; 750 to 850 for grades 9 through 12.

Serve only unflavored 1% milk or fat-free flavored or unflavored milk. Currently, schools can serve milk of any fat content.

Increase the fruits and vegetables kids are offered. The new rule requires that a serving of fruit be offered daily at breakfast and lunch and that two servings of vegetables be offered daily at lunch.

Over the course of a week, there must be a serving of each of the following: green leafy vegetables, orange vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes, summer squash), beans, starchy and other vegetables. This is to make sure that children are exposed to a variety of vegetables.

Increase whole grains substantially. Currently, there is no requirement regarding whole grains, but the proposed rules require that half of grains served must be whole grains.

Minimize trans fat by using products where the nutrition label says zero grams of trans fat per serving.

Vilsack dismisses accusations that the government is trying to “dictate” what people, instead insisting that the new rules try to make sure kids “are as healthy, happy, productive and as successful as God intended them to be,” he says.

The new school meal standards are just one part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 President Obama signed into law on Dec. 13.

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