January 21, 2018

USDA Announces Improvements to School Lunches

On January 25, 2012, First Lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack revealed the USDA’s new standards for school meals. This is the first time in fifteen years the standards have been raised. And it’s the first time in 30 years that the government is expanding funding for schools who meet the new requirements.

The new standards intend to improve the health and nutrition of the 32 million children who eat lunch at school every day. The government would also like to stem the tide of the nation’s increasing obesity rate. The original recommendations were made by a panel of doctors and nutritionists at the Institute of Medicine.

This is a component of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act signed into law in 2010. The First Lady said, “As parents, we try to prepare decent meals, limit how much junk food our kids eat, and ensure they have a reasonably balanced diet. And when we’re putting in all that effort the last thing we want is for our hard work to be undone each day in the school cafeteria.”

The standards will:

  • Double the amounts of fruits and vegetables offered
  • Increase whole grain options for many foods
  • Offer low fat and skim milk instead of whole milk
  • Set healthy calorie counts based on the child’s age
  • Reduce saturated fat amounts
  • Use only ingredients that contain zero grams of trans fat per serving
  • Reduce sodium content

These changes were made so school lunches meet the government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The USDA has published a sample menu that abides by the new guidelines in comparison with a menu that meets the old guidelines. The changes will be phased in over a three-year period, starting in the school year of 2012-2013.

And there’s another benefit to the increased nutrition standards. For many of the children who participate in the National School Lunch Program, that free or reduced-cost lunch is the only meal they will eat that day, and often the one with the most nutrition. Children who are hungry do not learn well and do not perform well in school, which does not bode well for the country’s future.

Consumer activists, medical professionals, educators, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and the American Heart Association all praised these changes. Nancy Brown, the CEO of the American Heart Association, said, “Learning to make nutritious food choices at an early age is an important lesson for America’s children. We strongly believe these new standards for school meals will help the nation’s youth develop healthy food habits.”

Unfortunately, some in Congress made changes to the proposed program last year, classifying tomato paste on pizza as a vegetable when suppliers of school pizzas weighed in. The original proposal would have limited starchy vegetable offerings, but Congress omitted that standard after the potato lobby complained.

And in May 2011, the House of Representatives called the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 a “massive and costly” federal intrusion. The Act costs $450 million a year, while direct medical costs due to obesity run $147 billion per year.

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