School lunch gets a makeover

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The American school lunch, long the butt of schoolyard jokes, is in for a nutritional makeover, fueled by concern over a national epidemic of childhood obesity and funded by the first hike in federal contributions in three decades. Starting next school year, U.S. schoolchildren will see changes in school lunch programs that are expected to bring fruits and vegetables, more whole grains and potentially smaller portions to every meal served in the nation’s schools and at nonprofit childcare centers.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, joined by First Lady Michelle Obama, on Wednesday unveiled a platter of new federal standards for the lunch program, which feeds roughly 31 million children each school day. The updated school lunch standards are expected to spell the end of mystery meat and of ketchup as a vegetable, ushering in offerings such as whole wheat pasta, fresh cantaloupe, grilled chicken and chef salads.

Friday’s mainstay -- cheese pizza with tater tots and canned fruit -- would get a major overhaul, according to a sample menu released Wednesday: In its new incarnation, Friday’s pizza would have whole wheat crust, those tater tots would make way for baked sweet potato fries, and pineapple in sugary fruit syrup would be replaced by grape tomatoes served with low-fat ranch dip. Meals would come only with nonfat milk (which can be flavored) or with unflavored low-fat (1%) milk. (See a before-and-after meal plan here.)

“As parents, we try to prepare decent meals, limit how much junk food our kids eat, and ensure they have a reasonable balanced diet,” said Obama on Wednesday at Parklawn Elementary School in Alexandria, Va., where she and Vilsack announced the changes to the school lunch program. “And when we’re putting in all that effort, the last thing we want is for all our hard work to be undone each day in the school cafeteria. When we send our kids to school, we expect that they won’t be eating the kind of fatty, salty, sugary foods that we try to keep them from eating at home.”

Schools are expected to phase in changes to their menus over the next three years, starting with the 2012-2013 school year, Vilsack said. Next year, the 101,000 public and nonprofit private schools that participate in the program will be expected to focus on making changes to lunch menus, with fixes to breakfast and snack offerings coming later.

The changes are expected to cost $3.2 billion over the next five years, and come with a hike in federal contributions to the program. Under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the federal government will contribute an additional 6 cents to each meal served under the program. Currently, the federal government reimburses schools up to $2.77 for meals provided free of charge to students from low-income households.

Under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the federal government is expected to help school systems find ways to access more fresh fruit and vegetables for schoolchildren, and will require schools across the country to banish snack foods and beverages that do not meet healthy dietary standards.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Assn.) praised the new guidelines and promised it would help lead “creative collaborations” to help cash-strapped school systems meet the new standards. The new guidelines also won praise from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which said in a statement that they “will undoubtedly make significant improvements in the health of all our nation’s children.”

The pediatricians group acknowledged that Obama’s stated objective of reversing the nation’s obesity crisis among children in a single generation “won’t be easy.” But the new guidelines “will make great strides” toward achieving that goal, the group said.

Under the new rules issued Wednesday, school lunches for children in kindergarten through fifth grade must provide at least 550 calories, but not more than 650. Students in sixth through eighth grades must be offered lunches between 600 and 700 calories, and those in grades nine through 12 are to get lunches totaling between 750 and 850 calories. Guidelines that have been in place specify only the minimum calories that must be offered in school lunches; the newly drafted guidelines generally top out near or, in some cases, below the calorie counts required by current policy.

Some of the new guidelines do not break new ground -- no more than 10% of school lunch calories should come from saturated fat, for instance. But the new guidelines set new limits on sodium as early as the 2014-15 academic year, and over the following 10 years, cut those limits almost in half. The guidelines also set weekly requirements for the amounts of dark green vegetables, red/orange vegetables, legumes and starchy vegetables that students must be offered.

Those guidelines already have largely been embraced by the Los Angeles Unified School District, which over recent years has implemented sweeping changes to improve its nutritional offerings. David Binkle, deputy director of food services for LAUSD, called it “exciting because the rest of the country is going to come up to the standards of L.A. Unified.” But Binkle also noted that such changes are neither cheap nor readily embraced by students, to whom many new menu items -- including sushi, hummus and quinoa salad -- are unfamiliar.

LAUSD’s purchase of fresh fruits and vegetables has risen from $2 million in 2006 to $14 million last year, and continues to rise, Binkle said. With such a costly undertaking, he added, the federal government’s 6-cent increase in school-lunch reimbursement “certainly is a help,” Binkle said, “but it’s never enough.” At the same time, Binkle said the district would have liked more flexibility to offer some children smaller meals more in line with their small appetites, which he said would result in less waste.