National Consumers League

USDA to school lunch ladies: less fries, more fruit


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The days of Mystery Meat Mondays may soon be over for schoolchildren across the nation. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is proposing new guidelines for school lunches subsidized by the federal government, the first major nutritional overhaul in 15 years. The new guidelines would require schools to drastically lower the amount of sodium in school meals, limit children to one cup of starchy vegetables (such as French fries) per week, and increase servings of fruit, whole grains, and low-fat milk. The requirements are based on the 2009 recommendations by the Institute of Medicine that advocated reducing sugar, saturated fat, and sodium but increasing protein and whole grains. Following these recommendations, the new USDA guidelines would:

  • Establish the first calorie limits for school meals
  • Ban trans fats
  • Reduce the amount of sodium in school meals by 50 percent over a 10-year period
  • Gradually increase the amount of whole grains required
  • Require both a grain and protein served for breakfast
  • Require more servings of fruits and vegetables
  • Require all milk to be either low-fat or non-fat
A before-and-after comparison of the new lunch standards can be viewed here The proposal arrives at a critical time for America’s youth. According to the USDA, roughly one-third of children between 6 and 19 years old are overweight or obese, and the number of obese children has tripled over the past few decades. Obesity, a serious health concern in its own right, often leads to other problematic and hard-to-treat medical conditions such as diabetes and sleep apnea. Experts argue that improving the nutritional value of school meals would be a giant step toward a healthier America. According to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the new guidelines could affect more than 32 million children, an impressive number given that children consume more than half of their calories at school. Although these guidelines are just a proposal and implementation could be far off, the Obama administration has been moving quickly on the nutrition issue; today’s announcement comes just a few weeks after President Obama signed the $4.5 billion Healthy Hunger-Free Kinds Act of 2010 that required the new nutritional standards and helps schools pay for healthier foods. The USDA is seeking feedback on the proposed rule at www.regulations.gov through April 13, 2011.