Fat and salt-laden school food beware.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture Thursday unveiled proposed nutritional standards for meals served through the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs, the first major upgrade to nutritional requirements in 15 years. The tougher standards are part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, recently signed into law by President Obama, that aims to reduce both childhood hunger and obesity.

lunchstandards-featured.jpgThe proposed standards would add more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat milk to the meals the government pays for, or subsidizes, for around 32 million schoolchildren daily.  Saturated fat, sodium, calories and trans fats would all have stricter limits under the new rule.

Agriculture Secretary Vilsack told reporters Thursday that USDA would help give schools and communities the tools needed to make the transition to healthier meals.  “There are a number of ways school districts can address this without breaking the bank.”

“Raising a healthier generation of kids will require hard work and commitment of a host of partners,” said Vilsack.  “We understand that these improved meal standards may present challenges for some school districts, but the new law provides important new resources, technical assistance and flexibility to help schools raise the bar for our kids.”

The produce industry reacted enthusiastically to the standards, recognizing the opportunity to not only increase sales to the school meal programs, but also to help foster increased long-term produce consumption.

“Fruits and vegetables are the stars of USDA’s goal for healthier school meals, and kids and the produce industry will benefit,” said Dr. Lorelei DiSogra, United Fresh Produce Association vice president of nutrition and health.

Author and food policy expert Marion Nestle lauded the standards, but lamented that there were some loopholes.

“The new standards allow skim ‘flavored’ milk (translation: sugar-sweetened),” said Nestle on her Food Politics website.   “Otherwise, says USDA, kids might not drink milk and will not get enough calcium.  Sigh.  Milk, as I keep saying, is not an essential nutrient.  Chocolate or strawberry milk is a dessert.  Chalk this one up to dairy lobbying.”

USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service is seeking public comment  on the new standards through April 13. The new standards could be put in place by the time the 2011-12 school year kicks off in the fall.