Wednesday, January 25, 2012

First Lady Michelle Obama Calls On America To Embrace Healthier School Lunch Standards

USDA's new guidelines are part of parents' rights, and will combat sugar highs and eliminate greasy, salty foods from school meals, says First Lady...

By Marian Burros and Eddie Gehman Kohan

Alexandria, Virginia:
As she gears up to celebrate the second anniversary of the Let's Move! campaign in February, First Lady Michelle Obama can be satisfied that her efforts to improve America's school lunches are well underway. As the most high-profile champion of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act 2010, the legislation that mandates changes in school nutrition standards, Mrs. Obama on Wednesday unveiled USDA's long-awaited final rule during a visit to Parklawn Elementary School. The event was Mrs. Obama's first Let's Move! outing for 2012, and she hailed it as "a great celebration for us all." (Above: Mrs. Obama dines with kids in Parklawn's cafeteria)

"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," Mrs. Obama said. "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."

Clad in fitted blue pants, an orange and brown argyle sweater, and a string of pearls, Mrs. Obama made her remarks to a group of parents, teachers and nutrition advocates packed into the school library. She was joined by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and celebrity chef and talk show host Rachael Ray, who provided recipes for a Southwestern-themed lunch to showcase the new guidelines. Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass sat in the audience to watch his boss speak. Mrs. Obama thanked everyone for all the work they've done to encourage better school nutrition standards.

"As parents, we all know that if left to their own devices, many of our kids would eat candy for breakfast, they'd follow it up with a few French fries for lunch and cookies and chips for snacks, and then they’d come home for a big chocolate sundae for dinner, right?" Mrs. Obama said.

Beginning in the Fall of 2012, the new standards will be phased in over the next three years. Students will be offered both fruits and vegetables every day of the week, doubling the amount currently offered. After a phase-in period, starting in the 2014-2015 school year, schools must offer only whole-grain products. The new rule limits calories based on age, to ensure proper portion size, and reduces total calories by as much as 225 calories for some age groups. There is an overall focus on reducing saturated fat, trans fats and sodium levels (the sodium reductions will take ten years). Schools may also use tofu as an alternative to meat, according to the rule. Pizza will be available, but it will have lower salt content and it must have a whole grain crust when the rule is in full effect. Milk must be low- or non-fat; flavored milk must be non-fat.

More than 32 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program, according to USDA, and healthier school meals are crucial to academic success, Mrs. Obama said.

"Kids can’t be expected to sit still and concentrate when they’re on a sugar high, or when they’re stuffed with salty, greasy food -- or when they’re hungry," Mrs. Obama said, and noted that the legislation isn't just designed to combat childhood obesity.

"For many kids whose families are struggling, school meals can be their main -- or only -- source of nutrition for the entire day," Mrs. Obama said. "So when we serve higher-quality food in our schools, we’re not just fighting childhood obesity; we’re taking the important steps that are needed to fight child hunger as well."

The new rule, built around recommendations from a federal Institute of Medicine expert panel, and updated with key changes from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, is the first significant change to school nutrition guidelines in 15 years. It comes after USDA received more than 130,000 comments when it unveiled proposed guidelines a year ago--and many complaints have been addressed, USDA said, such as how to offer the increase in fruit and vegetables.

In the coming years, schools that meet the new standards will receive an extra six cents per meal, the first change to the federal reimbursement rate for school meals in 30 years. Schools won't start getting more funding until 2013, but Sam Kass told reporters that this will not dramatically impact efforts to make meals healthier.

"We're seeing schools across the country, by the thousand, who have already met these requirements without additional funds," Kass said.

In her remarks, Mrs. Obama pointed to F.S. Ervin, an elementary school in Pine Hill, Alabama, as one school that has changed its lunch program without additional funding.

"Now, Pine Hall [sic] is a little-bitty town, rural town, with a population under 1,000 and an average household income of less than $26,000," Mrs. Obama said. "But they have made some important changes to their school menu already--things like replacing canned vegetables with fresh or frozen ones, moving in more whole grains, offering plenty of fresh fruit, and even baking their French fries instead of frying them."

"We’re seeing changes like these in schools all across the country, of all sizes -- rural, urban and suburban."

Parklawn is one of the schools that has met those challenges: 60% of the 780 students receive free or reduced-price lunches, and the school has been awarded the Gold with Distinction award in the HealthierUS School Challenge, a USDA program that rewards schools for best-practices in food service and fitness initiatives. Mrs. Obama is actively promoting the HUSC as part of the Let's Move! campaign, and there are now more than 2,000 schools certified. (Above: Mrs. Obama in Parklawn's lunch line)

As she ended her remarks, Mrs. Obama called on everyone to "embrace" the new rule.

"I am asking parents and educators and food service workers across this country to embrace this effort on behalf of our children," she said. "Embrace it. Because we all know that we are some of the best role models for our kids. We are the first and best role models."

New rule is less costly than proposed rule...
The new rule reduces the overall cost of the legislation, compared to USDA's proposed rule. The cost will be $3.2 billion over the next five years, less than half of the proposed standards’ originally estimated cost of $6.8 billion. That's due to two key changes: USDA significantly modified the breakfast meal pattern, including eliminating the daily requirement that meat or a meat alternate be served.

USDA also clarified an “offer-vs-serve” requirement, which enables schools to promote fruits and vegetables, while allowing students to take smaller portions of these, if desired. Under the old guidelines, schools would auto-serve a portion of fruit or vegetables, and a child could not choose what this would be, or how much to take. The change will be phased in over a three-year period, according to USDA, and help eliminate "plate waste."

"It's self-policing" for portion size, according to Kass.

USDA has earmarked $50 million for training and technical support for schools, to ensure that meeting the new guidelines will be achieved. The new standards are strong, despite efforts by Congress to weaken them. In 2011, Congress put the interests of food corporations and lobbyists ahead of child health, and mandated two changes to the nutrition rules: Congress declared that pizza sauce can be counted as a vegetable, and also ensured that white potatoes and other starchy vegetables could be served in unlimited quantities during the school week. The proposed standards had limited potatoes and starchy vegetables, so that dark green and orange vegetables could appear more frequently on lunch trays.

The efforts by Congress didn't hinder anyone's enthusiasm on Wednesday.

"It's a red letter day for kids, and the future of our country," Sec. Vilsack said, and quoted President Obama's State of the Union Address on Tuesday, noting that healthier school meals are crucial for creating "an America built to last."

Margo Wootan, Director of Nutrition Policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, was on hand for Mrs. Obama's announcement, and she praised the new guidelines.

"They are really, really good," Wootan said.

Dr. Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for United Fresh Produce Association, was also on hand. DiSogra has worked tirelessly to match schools with donors for Mrs. Obama's Let's Move Salad Bars to Schools project, which aims to get 6,000 child-sized salad bars into schools in the next two years. She is thrilled with the new standards.

“We are very excited that fruits and vegetables will be the stars of healthier school meals,” DiSogra said. "We support this landmark effort by First Lady Michelle Obama and USDA to create healthier school meals and healthier school food environments for millions of America’s children.”

Rachael Ray's school lunch...
"I'm hungry," Mrs. Obama said twice during her remarks, and afterwards she joined about 220 second and fourth graders in Parklawn's cafeteria to enjoy Ray's showcase luncheon, cooked by cafeteria staff from Ray's recipes. The kids speak 38 different languages, and were seated at tables as Mrs. Obama entered, greeting her with wild cheers, many waving mini American flags. (Above: Mrs. Obama ate turkey tacos with a group of excited students)

Carrying a pink tray, Mrs. Obama moved through the lunch line, followed by Ray and Vilsack.

"This is so nice, and so well prepared," Mrs. Obama said of the menu, which included turkey tacos with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and salsa; Mexican brown rice and whole grain flat bread; a black bean and corn salad, with a serving of mixed fresh fruit--a choice between strawberries, kiwis and orange, or melon and cantaloupe. Of course there was low- or non-fat milk. (Above: Ray in the lunch line)

The First Lady chatted with the kids behind her as they went through the lunch line, asking them what kind of fruit they liked best and whether they like brown rice or white.

"I love brown rice!" Mrs. Obama said. "That's all we eat at home."

After picking up her child-sized bowl of corn salad ("This is the best part -- veggies!"), Mrs. Obama reached the end of the line, only to be confronted with a cash register. The little girl behind her in line told her she needed a "lunch number" to pay for her meal.

"I don't have a lunch number," Mrs. Obama said. She was of course allowed to eat anyway, and proceeded with her young helpers, who showed her where to get a fork and a carton of milk.

Seated at a long rectangular table with 16 kids and one teacher, Mrs. Obama immediately dug into her meal and chatted with the children sitting around her. Vilsack and Ray sat at nearby tables, also surrounded by kids.

First Lady will be on Ray's TV show...
During today's school visit, Ray interviewed the First Lady for her eponymous talk show; the segment will air next week, Ray told Obama Foodorama. A longtime supporter of the First Lady's childhood obesity initiative, Ray joined Mrs. Obama for a special Kitchen Garden Spring Harvest during the huge South Lawn launch for the Chefs Move to Schools project in June of 2010, and also starred in a White House video about Let's Move!, created after the event. Kass cooked healthy treats with Ray on her TV show in September of 2011. (Above: Mrs. Obama in the lunch line; Vilsack is behind her)

Mrs. Obama's appearance on Ray's show will be one of a number of TV outings in the coming weeks: On Jan. 31, as she visits Los Angeles, Mrs. Obama will join Jay Leno on The Tonight Show to discuss the second anniversary of the Let's Move! campaign and her forthcoming gardening book. On February 1, she'll tape The Ellen DeGeneres Show to promote Let’s Move!, and the show will air on Feb. 2. On February 9, Mrs. Obama will formally celebrate the second anniversary of her campaign with an event in Des Moines, Iowa, which will include thousands of kids at the Wells Fargo Arena.

*The full transcript of Mrs. Obama's remarks. USDA's news release about the new rule is here.

Read: An overview of the Let's Move! campaign.

*Download USDA's Final Nutrition Standard 2012 [PDF]

*Download Implementation Timeline [PDF]

*Download Before And After School Lunch Menu [PDF]

*Download Comparison of Current and New Regulatory Requirements [PDF]

*Download the White House Childhood Obesity Task Force Report [PDF]

*Top photo by Chuck Kennedy/White House; lunchline photos by Bob Nichols/USDA