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New Rules for School Lunches

Healthier Food, Smaller Portions: But Still No Potato Limit
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Jan. 25, 2012 -- For the first time in 15 years, the National School Lunch Program has raised nutrition standards.

The new rules mean kids will see more fruits and vegetables every day. Portions will be smaller. Only low-fat or skim milk will be served. There will be a lot more whole grains. And schools will get more money -- an extra six cents a meal -- from the federal government.

But Congress in 2011 forbade the USDA from limiting servings of potatoes. The law also allows schools to count the tomato paste on pizza as a vegetable. But Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says that won't throw a monkey wrench into the new standards.

"It was a bit unfortunate that some groups had powerful friends in Congress and basically tried to sort of short-change [kids] and create some confusion with these standards," Vilsack said at a news conference. "Our response was to set up minimum requirements. You have to have a minimum level of dark green vegetables, you've got to have a minimum level of red or orange or yellow vegetables."

Celebrity chef Rachael Ray, who joined Vilsack in announcing the new standards, says the potato/pizza loopholes won't keep the new rules from making school lunches healthier.

"OK, so congress left pizza a vegetable. But we are changing the game today," Ray said. "That [lunch] tray is going to have leafy greens and colorful fruit on it. If one of the other vegetables happens to be pizza or French fries in some schools that day, it doesn’t negate the fact that on the tray there is going to be a goal, depending on grade level, of roughly 800 calories -- and it will include vegetables and fruits."

Vilsack said that schools will be encouraged to serve baked or roasted potatoes instead of French fries.

About 32 million U.S. kids eat school lunches. Many of these kids get half their daily calories from these meals.

New School Lunch Rules

Today's rules mean that school lunches must:

  • Offer a minimum of 8 to 10 ounces of whole grains. No more than two desserts a week may be used to meet this minimum
  • Offer at least a half cup per week of dark green vegetables
  • Offer at least 3/4 cup red/orange vegetables for grades K-8, and at least 1 1/4 cups in grades 9-12
  • Offer at least a half cup of beans or peas
  • Offer at least a half cup of starchy vegetables. There is no limit on starchy vegetables
  • Offer at least a half cup of fruit in grades K-8 and at least 1 cup of fruit in grades 9-12
  • Offer at least a half cup (grades K-8) or 3/4 cup (grades 9-12) of "other vegetables," which may be met with any of the above vegetables except for starchy vegetables
  • Allow tofu as a meat alternative
  • Get federal reimbursement only if they offer at least a half cup of a fruit or vegetable
  • Contain no fewer than 550 calories for grades K-5, 600 calories for grades 6-8, and 750 calories for grades 9-12
  • Contain no more than 650 calories for grades K-5, 700 calories for grades 6-8, and 850 calories for grades 9-12
  • Obtain less than 10% of total calories from saturated fat
  • Have zero trans fat
  • Limit salt according to grade level
  • Offer at least a cup of low-fat or skim milk

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