Thursday, January 13, 2011

Secretary Vilsack Unveils Sweeping Changes For School Nutrition Standards

French fries, white bread, and trans fats will soon be things America's kids read about in history books rather than eat in schools, under new law championed by Michelle Obama
Today, exactly a month after President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act 2010, the legislative centerpiece of First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign, the USDA announced a dramatic upgrade to nutrition standards for meals served through the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack unveiled the proposed new federal guidelines, which are a very detailed transformation of 15-year-old standards. (Above: During a visit to Hollin Meadows Elementary School, Mrs. Obama and Sec. Vilsack handed out fruit in the lunchline)

On a conference call with reporters, Vilsack called the new rule the "biggest change in a generation," and said it is intended to be a "road map" for schools to follow as they offer the healthier foods Mrs. Obama has been exhaustively promoting: Fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, low- and non-fat dairy products.

"It's responding to a deep concern that we have at USDA, and that the President and First Lady have, about not only hungry children, but also children who are obese or at risk of being obese," Vilsack said. "If we do not get our hands around the obesity epidemic, we are risking serious consequences."

According to government data, almost 32 percent of children 6 to 19 years of age are overweight or obese; the number of obese children in this age range has tripled in the last few decades. The new rule requires calorie limits, trans fats are entirely off menus, and sodium levels in food will be reduced over a ten-year period. Children must be offered two servings of vegetables at lunch, and a serving of fruit at both breakfast and lunch. Half of all grains served in cafeterias must be whole grains. There are currently no standards for the amount of whole grains served in schools.

More than 31 million children eat lunch and almost 11 million eat breakfast through the federal feeding programs, and Vilsack said that the new rule can have an impact on everything from national security, to ballooning health care costs, to academic success.

"An estimated nine million young adults 18-24 are not fit to do the work our all-volunteer armed forces requires, because they are overweight or obese," Sec. Vilsack said. "It's an additional 21 percent spent in health care costs."

"This is a very important issue for our country," Vilsack added. "School districts are anxiously awaiting these standards."

>The White House released a Before/After school lunch menu that demonstrates what kids are served now, and what they'll be offered when new guidelines are in place

The new rule is based on recommendations from an October, 2009 report from the federal Institute of Medicine (IOM), and specifies portion sizes as well as the kinds of vegetables schools must offer. For instance, French fries will be a rare treat, because starchy vegetables such as corn, green peas, and potatoes are limited to one cup per week.

"The rule makes sure calories count, ensure that they're nutritionally dense and healthier," Vilsack said.

>The new guidelines as published in the Federal Register

For the first time, USDA is setting minimum and maximum calorie limits for school meals. For lunch, meals must have a minimum of 550 and a maximum of 650 calories for students in K-5; this jumps up to 600 minimum and 700 maximum for grades 6-8; and 750 to 850 for grades 9-12. USDA estimates that overall, kids consume between 30% to 50% of their daily calories at school. There are currently no calorie maximums for school meals.

Although the new standard for reducing sodium has a decade-long implementation time, it cuts in half the allowable level. USDA estimates that the average high school lunch has 1,600 milligrams of sodium. By 2021, this should be lowered to 740 milligrams or less for grades through 9-12; 710 milligrams or less for grades 6-8; and 640 milligrams or less for grades K-5.

Sugar is safe...and the timeline
But while reducing sodium levels in school foods is a big focus, sugar is not on the chopping block, Vilsack said, because the IOM report did not cite it as a major concern. So under the new rules, flavored milk will still be available to kids in cafeterias. It must be non-fat, but it is still flavored, and still has a fairly high sugar content. Chocolate and other flavored milk is a big bone of contention among nutritionists, who cite it as adding unnecessary sugar to kids' diets. Unflavored milk must be 1% fat or nonfat. Schools can currently serve milk with any fat percentage.

When the regulations are finalized, schools in the National Breakfast and Lunch programs will be required to meet the standards to get government reimbursement for meals. Schools currently receive $2.72 for every child, but schools that comply with the new standards will get another 6 cents per meal. Schools will be required to adopt the new standards for the 2012 school year, but Vilsack said he wants a more rapid implementation.

"Our hope is that in the Fall of 2011, children and more importantly their parents will see improvement in school meals," Vilsack said.

The new rule does not require Congressional approval, but is open for a 90-day public comment period. A rule that impacts other foods sold on campus during school hours, such as in a la carte lines and vending machines, will be released at a later date, Vilsack said. In December of 2010, the Secretary pledged in a letter to Congress that he will not ban bake sales from schools.

Vegetable varieties and nutrition education
Last November, in Miami, Florida, Mrs. Obama launched the Let's Move Salad Bars to Schools initiative, a $15 million, three-year fundraising campaign to get 6,000 special child-sized salad bars into public schools. To date, only $741 has been donated on the campaign website. (Above: Mrs. Obama stands beside a model salad bar as she speaks about the initiative)

But even without salad bars in their cafeterias, schools will be required over the course of each week to serve a specific selection of vegetables, to ensure that children are introduced to new varieties. There must be a serving of each of the following: Dark orange vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes, summer squash), beans, starchy vegetables such as corn and green peas, and dark green leafy vegetables.

White potatoes and starchy vegetables, including corn, lima beans, and green peas, are restricted. Schools can only serve one cup total of these during the course of a week.

Without mentioing Mrs. Obama's Chefs Move to Schools imitative by name, Vilsack said that USDA is encouraging school districts to work with local chefs to find creative ways to offer kids healthier foods "without breaking the bank."

"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," Vilsack said.

Related: Senior Policy Adviser for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass and Sec. Vilsack explain the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. In December of 2010, Sesame Street muppet Elmo joined Kass in the White House kitchen to tout improved lunch standards (video).