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Published January 30, 2012, 10:13 AM

Ag groups react to new school meal standards

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — First lady Michelle Obama and Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack visited an elementary school in Virginia on Jan. 25 to unveil new school meal standards. It is popular with the fruit and vegetable industries, but the potato and dairy industries were worried that it would reduce consumption of their products.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — First lady Michelle Obama and Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack visited an elementary school in Virginia on Jan. 25 to unveil new school meal standards. The rules aim to improve the health and nutrition of children by increasing offerings of fruits, vegetables and whole grain foods, limiting milk to fat-free and low-fat varieties, ensuring proper portion size by age and reducing saturated fats, trans fats and sodium.

The rule will take effect at the start of the school year this fall. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has already reviewed 132,000 comments, and this version of the final rule. It is popular with the fruit and vegetable industries, but the potato and dairy industries were worried that it would reduce consumption of their products.

The school meal standards are one of the signature accomplishments of the Obama administration and are based on authorization under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which was passed in late 2010 when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.

Last year, Congress passed a law preventing the administration from limiting the amount of potatoes that can be served, and from ruling that pizza sauce could not qualify as a vegetable serving, but administration officials and nutrition advocates said the new rule is a major improvement in nutrition standards. Although the battles over potatoes and pizza sauce as a vegetable were bitter, both nutritionists and administration officials sound ecstatic over the rule.

“It’s the strongest school nutrition standard ever,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Even though she had lobbied that schools be required to serve a vegetable in addition to the tomato paste on pizza, Wootan said the pizza would be more nutritious because it would have a whole-grain crust and contain less sodium.

“I am confident we have a core set of healthy diets for children,” says Kevin Concannon, the agriculture undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services.

Although the National Potato Council convinced Congress to stop USDA from limiting potatoes, the group appears to be worried that Concannon’s final rule may reduce potato consumption.

“We are concerned that, just as in the proposed regulations, USDA’s final rule falls short of giving schools flexibility in the breakfast program to meet nutritional goals within their constrained budgets,” executive vice president and CEO John Keeling said in a news release.

“The rule’s prescriptive nature in promoting certain groups of vegetables over others will increase costs while handcuffing local schools’ abilities to meet USDA’s nutrition, caloric, fat and sodium requirements,” Keeling said. “We look forward to working with school food service professionals around the country as they evaluate the final rule and work to increase vegetable consumption by students at both breakfast and lunch.”

Dairy producers had urged USDA to allow schools to serve low-fat chocolate milk, but the final rule says only fat-free milk can be flavored.

On Jan. 26, National Milk Producers Federation president and CEO Jerry Kozak praised USDA for requiring that low-fat or fat-free milk remain a part of every school meal. He said that while his group would have preferred allowing low-fat flavored milk, “it’s essential that chocolate milk, in particular, remain available in school cafeterias to assure children are getting the nutrients milk provides.”

When the rule was proposed, schools had complained that the foods with higher nutritional values would cost more. Concannon noted in a call to reporters Jan. 26 that USDA had reduced the final cost of the new rule from an estimated $6.8 billion to $3.2 billion over five years.

The increased costs are expected to be covered by the 6 cents per school lunch that schools will get, plus requirements that schools gradually increase the cost of lunches for middle-class children and charge the full cost for a la carte meals. In addition, USDA has eliminated the requirement that at least one ounce of meat or meat equivalent be served with school breakfast and is phasing in changes to that program over three years.

Groups that had favored improved nutrition but worried about the costs now say USDA has improved the final rule.

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