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Published January 18, 2011, 10:23 AM

Serving up new standards

WASHINGTON — School meals can shift toward healthier foods that will involve changes in school food purchasing patterns as early as next fall under a proposed rule to update the nutrition standards for meals served through the national school lunch and breakfast programs that the Agriculture Department published in the Federal Register on Jan. 13.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — School meals can shift toward healthier foods that will involve changes in school food purchasing patterns as early as next fall under a proposed rule to update the nutrition standards for meals served through the national school lunch and breakfast programs that the Agriculture Department published in the Federal Register on Jan. 13.

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 would provide additional resources to the schools, Secretary of Agriculture Tom 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 2011 school year next fall.

Changes to meals

The proposed meal requirements will raise standards for the first time in 15 years and would make critical changes to school meals and help improve the health and nutrition of nearly 32 million children that participate in school meal programs 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,” Vilsack 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 wellbeing 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 to school meals, are based on recommendations released in October 2009 by the National Academies’ Institute of Medicine and presented in its report, School Meals: Building Blocks for Healthy Children. Schools also will be required to limit the levels of saturated fat, sodium, calories and trans fats in meals. The guidelines will not limit sugar because the report did not focus on that food item, Agriculture Undersecretary for Food and Nutrition Services Kevin Concannon said.

Changes to purchases

The rule is expected to have an affect on agriculture by changing schools’ purchasing patterns, though 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 USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service “would work overtime” to try to bring school vending machines and school meal 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 will “review” the rule. 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 the standard’s “limit allowing only one-cup of starchy vegetables (such as white potatoes and corn) 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.”

Cutting salt, preserving taste

In an apparent recognition of fears that children may reject the healthier foods, Vilsack said sodium slowly would be reduced and noted 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 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 authorizes more funding, but Congress will have to appropriate the additional money.

The new bill provides an additional 6 cents per meal in federal reimbursements for the cost of school meals, but some school officials have complained the new standards would raise costs beyond that.

But Vilsack suggested schools can 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,” Vilsack said.

Concannon also noted FNS is working with schools to encourage purchasing of foods from local farmers. Vilsack said the changes in school meals could make the general public appreciate farmers more as people realize 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 said increased physical activity is vital to reducing obesity, and first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative is emphasizing exercise as well as changing eating habits.

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