New Rules Call for Healthier School Lunches

USDA Unveils New Guidelines for School Meals, Including Less Salt and Fat, More Fruits and Vegetables

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on January 12, 2011
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Jan. 13, 2011 -- U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has unveiled new nutritional guidelines aimed at upgrading school meals to improve children’s health and curb the country’s obesity crisis.

In a national telephone news briefing, Vilsack says children get about a third of their calories in school and that the number needs to be reduced to head off “serious consequences” relating to their health and also national security.

About 9 million young adults are deemed unfit to serve in military branches because of weight and related health issues, he says.

He says the proposed guidelines, which don’t require congressional approval, will likely go into effect in the fall of the 2011-2012 school year.

What New Rules Will Do

Among other things, the new rules call for reducing sodium over the next decade, decreasing the amount of starchy vegetables such as potatoes, corn, and green peas to a cup a week, and serving only unflavored 1% milk or fat-free flavored or unflavored milk.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the proposed rule will raise standards for school meals for the first time in 15 years and make “critical changes” to food served to nearly 32 million youngsters daily.

The proposed rules would add more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free and low-fat milk to school meals and are based on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine. Schools would be required to limit levels of saturated fat, sodium, calories, and trans fat in meals, Vilsack says.

“The United States is facing an obesity epidemic and the crisis of poor diets threatens the future of our children, and our nation,” Vilsack says in a news release. “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.”

He says raising a healthier generation of children “will require hard work and commitment of a host of partners” and that the upgraded standards could pose challenges for some school districts.

But he says the new Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act provides new resources and technical assistance to “help schools raise the bar for our kids.”

School meal programs are a partnership of USDA, state agencies, and local schools, and the Agriculture Department has pledged its help to upgrade food programs.

Schoolchildren Should Have Better Meals

The USDA’s statement says the new guidelines are an important component of first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative to solve the problem of childhood obesity in a generation.

The Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit watchdog organization, says in a statement that the USDA’s proposal would “bring school meal standards into the 21st century.”

Margo G. Wootan, nutrition policy director of the organization, says the new rule “represents an enormous improvement over the status quo” and that “capping calories, limiting French fries, and reducing salt will all help America’s school children avoid unnecessary weight gain and diet-related diseases.”

She says requiring school lunches to provide more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables “will teach kids healthy eating habits that may last a lifetime.”

A Third of Youths Are Overweight or Obese

The USDA says about 32% of children 6-19 are overweight or obese and the number of obese children in that age group has increased in the past few decades. These kids are at higher risk for chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.

Vilsack says the USDA is seeking comment on the proposed rules through April 13.

The published proposal, in part, calls for:

  • Establishing calorie maximums and minimums for the first time. These are different according to various age groups.
  • Increasing whole grains substantially.
  • Minimizing trans fats.

The new rule applies to breakfasts and lunches served in schools, but not to what’s sold in vending machines. That will be addressed at a later time.

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Tom Vilsack, U.S. Agriculture Department secretary, nationwide telebriefing.

News release, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

News release, Center for Science in the Public Interest.

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