Feb 012012

By Teri Walker —

School lunches will have to offer more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, according to new nutrition standards issued last week by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Beginning July 1, with continued phasing in over the next three years, private and public schools will have to increase the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free and low-fat milk in school lunches offered to the more than 32 million students who participate in school lunch programs.

Schools will also have to reduce the levels of sodium, saturated fat and trans fat in meals, and meet the nutrition needs of school children within set calorie guidelines.

The changes to the school lunch nutrition requirements are based on recommendations of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, which seeks to decrease childhood obesity.

According to USDA officials, the intent of the new rule is to provide nutrient-dense meals that better meet the dietary needs of school children and protect their health.

The changes are in place for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, and provide calorie guidelines based on age. Meals for kindergarteners through fifth graders must have 550 to 650 calories; those for ninth to 12th graders must contain 450 to 600 calories.

The USDA wants to expand the nutrition guidelines to include breakfast offerings, as well, but the current rule affects only lunches.

The USDA offered a before-and-after sample menu to illustrate how the new guidelines will play out in school cafeterias. A former lunch offering a hotdog on a bun with ketchup, canned pears, raw celery and carrots with ranch dressing, and low fat chocolate milk would be replaced with an offering of whole-wheat spaghetti with meat sauce and a whole-wheat roll, green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, kiwi halves, low-fat milk, low-fat ranch dip and soft margarine.

A meal of pizza sticks with marinara sauce, banana, raisins and whole milk would be bumped to make room for a chef’s salad with a whole-wheat soft pretzel, corn, raw baby carrots, bananas, skim chocolate milk and low-fat dressings.

While the proposed rule changes sought to require students to select a fruit or a vegetable, the final rules only require that the variety of healthy foods be offered.

The USDA said comments from nutrition, health and child advocates, community organizations, academia and parents in favor of the rule cited concerns about the national childhood obesity problem and the increased likelihood of preventable diseases, including cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, stroke and type 2 diabetes.

The USDA said school food authorities, food service management companies, the food industry and others associated with operating school meals programs offered comments supporting improving school meals, but voiced strong concerns about some aspects of the proposed rule, such as food quantities, limits on starchy vegetables, sodium reductions, the whole grains requirement and the frequency of administrative review. Some program operators raised concerns about the cost of and timeline for implementing the rule changes, and the potential for increased plate waste if meals are not acceptable to students.

USDA officials responded, “The USDA has taken into consideration the different views expressed by commenters and seeks to be responsive to the concerns raised by stakeholders, especially those responsible for the management and day to day operation of the school meal programs. At the same time, we are mindful that the overweight and obesity epidemic affecting many children in America requires that all sectors of our society, including schools, help children make significant changes in their diet to improve their overall health and become productive adults.”

Most program changes, including those related to sodium reduction and the eventual increase to 100 percent whole grain offerings, will be phased in over time. The only change that took place immediately upon publication of the final rule, which occurred Jan. 26, was the requirement that any flavored milks, such as chocolate or strawberry, could only be offered as a fat-free, not low-fat or whole milk.

The cost of the program changes nationally is $3.2 billion, an amount the USDA says is less than a previous version of the proposed rule change.