In an effort to lower childhood obesity rates – which have been climbing rapidly over the past 3 decades – the Obama Administration is raising the bar on school nutrition.
With the help of First Lady Michelle Obama, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Wednesday revealed a new set of regulations for school meals, marking the first overhaul of these standards in more than 15 years.
And for the first time in 30 years, the government is expanding funding for schools which meet its nutrition requirements.
Under these rules, cafeterias will now offer double the amount of fruits and vegetables, increase whole grain options, and reduce the amounts of saturated fat, trans fat and sodium. Gone is whole milk, to be replaced by skim and 1 percent. Portion sizes will be based on children’s age groups, so that they are not consuming too many or too few calories.
“When we send our kids to school, we have a right to expect that they won’t be eating the kind of fatty, salty, sugary foods that we’re trying to keep from them when they’re at home,” said Mrs. Obama, at a school event to promote the new standards. “We have a right to expect that the food they get at school is the same kind of food that we want to serve at our own kitchen tables.”
The First Lady and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack ate lunch with nearly 800 students at Parklawn Elementary School, located just outside of Washington, DC, on Wednesday to draw attention to the new rule. The featured menu, which used celebrity chef Rachael Ray’s recipes, included turkey tacos, brown rice, whole grain flatbread, black bean corn salsa, fresh fruit and milk.
The changes are designed to bring school food into line with the government’s most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans and eventually to slow the progress of the country’s obesity epidemic.
Today, 1 in 3 children is either overweight or obese, putting them at an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And obese children have a greater likelihood of obesity in adulthood.
“These are final standards that make the kind of changes that we attempt to do in our own homes, whether you’re a parent or grandparent. They make improvements in diets,” said Kevin Concannon, USDA’s Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services during a teleconference Wednesday.
And these improvements aren’t just aimed at addressing obesity; they also may help undernourished children get the nutrients they need, and have the potential to improve children’s performance in school, because a more balanced diet has been shown to lead to better academic achievement.
“Knowing that our kids are going to school and getting the nutritious food that they need to perform academically, to set themselves up on a path for success in the future, is something that every kid deserves,” said White House Chef Sam Kass during Wednesday’s press call.
A year ago, the USDA published a draft version of these guidelines. During a subsequent comment period, more than 130,000 organizations, stakeholders and individuals weighed in on the proposed rule, leading to several key changes that are reflected in the final version.
One of these is a reduction in the price tag. While the original initiative would have cost around $6.8 billion, the new one will require $3.2 billion – or about half as much – to implement.
For schools worried that the new regulations will still be too costly, Concannon offered some suggestions.
“Schools can meet the [price] challenges by lower cost of food choices, making use of popular, less expensive menu choices…and using better purchasing stragtegies.”
Some schools, he said, have collaborated with one another to gain more leverage in negotiating purchasing prices.
He also noted that Congress has granted $50 million to USDA to provide technical assistance and education to staff to help them adopt these changes and revamp the way they prepare and serve meals.
Serving is also undergoing an overhaul, so that schools which offer 4 or more healthy options in one lunch line will use the “Offer vs. Serve” system. Instead of being handed a premade plate, students can choose which 3 options they want, and how much they’ll eat.
The government hopes this will make students more enthusiastic about their food, and simultaneously cut down on waste.
“That Offer versus Serve method has had a significant impact on lowering the estimated cost of a meal,” explained Concannon.
USDA thinks this new program will work, and work within schools’ budgets, because it has already been tested in more than 2,000 schools under the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFKA), championed by First Lady Michelle Obama.
“We’re seeing schools across the country by the thousands who are able to meet these requirements without any additional funds, and so while there are definitely challenges that lie ahead…we know that with dedication and ingenuity that we can put meals on the plates of kids that meet these requirements at an affordable rate,” said Kass.
The new policy was met with praise from various sectors, including consumer advocates, educators and medical professionals.
Margot Wootan, Director of Nutrition Policy at the Center for
Science in the Public Interest, a longtime advocate for school food reform, called the new changes “the strongest standards ever” and a big step in the right direction for national school meals programs.
“Like all child nutrition directors, I looked forward to the release of the new Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs,” said Penny McConnell, Director of Food and Nutrition Services at Fairfax County Public Schools, a district that has already made changes to improve the nutritional value of its food. “As a registered dietitian I support the new standards and their reflection of the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”
Commented Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association, “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 that will help lower obesity rates and ensure that the next generation can lead lives free of heart disease and stroke.”
The military community also praised the move because it could lead to more young adults eligible for service.
“Obesity is the leading medical reason why young adults are unable to join the military, with one in four too overweight to enlist,” said Jamie Barnett a retired Rear Admiral for the Navy and member of MISSION: READINESS, an organization that aims to increase the percent of high schoolers fit for military service.
“The retired generals and admirals of Mission: Readiness strongly supported passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and today’s announcement is an important step in helping reduce calories, fat and sodium in school meals so our obesity crisis does not become a national security crisis.”
The only part of the rule that will go into effect immediately is the switch to lowfat milk. The other components will be put in place gradually over the next 3 years.
USDA has released a sample menu illustrating how school offerings will evolve over this time.
In the coming months, USDA is expected to release a proposed rule that will apply to school foods beyond the lunch tray, including vending machines and a la carte lines — that rule is expected to follow the same nutritional guidelines.
Helena Bottemiller contributed reporting and photo. Pictured: First Lady Michelle Obama eating lunch with students at Parklawn Elementary School.