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New USDA Standards Aim for Healthier School Meals

by Karen Gaspers, editorial content manager

Goodbye salt and trans fat; hello whole grain foods and veggies. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Jan. 25 unveiled new nutrition standards for school lunches, aimed at creating healthier meals for kids nationwide. These are the first major changes to the standards in 15 years.

New Meal Standards

According to the USDA, the new meal requirements will raise standards for the first time in more than 15 years and improve the health and nutrition of nearly 32 million kids that participate in school meal programs every school day. Changes include:

  • Ensuring students are offered both fruits and vegetables every day of the week
  • Substantially increasing offerings of whole grain-rich foods
  • Offering only fat-free or low-fat milk varieties
  • Limiting calories based on the age of children being served to ensure proper portion size
  • Increasing the focus on reducing the amounts of saturated fat, trans fats, and sodium

The department built the new rule around recommendations from a panel of experts convened by the Institute of Medicine—a gold standard for evidence-based health analysis. The standards were also updated with key changes from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans—the federal government’s benchmark for nutrition—and aimed to foster the kind of healthy changes at school that many parents are already trying to encourage at home, such as making sure that kids are offered both fruits and vegetables each day, more whole grains, and portion sizes and calorie counts designed to maintain a healthy weight.

Under the new rules, in place of cheese pizza and tator tots, kids might find whole-wheat cheese pizza and baked sweet potatoe fries in the lunch line. Or a bean and cheese burrito with mozzarella cheese might be replaced by a submarine sandwhich containing turkey and low-fat cheese on a whole-wheat roll.

Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act

The healthier meal requirements are a key component of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which was championed by the First Lady as part of her Let’s Move! campaign and signed into law by President Obama.

“As parents, we try to prepare decent meals, limit how much junk food our kids eat, and ensure they have a reasonably balanced diet,” said First Lady Michelle Obama. “And when we’re putting in all that effort the last thing we want is for our hard work to be undone each day in the school cafeteria. When we send our kids to school, we expect that they won’t be eating the kind of fatty, salty, sugary foods that we try to keep them from eating at home. We want the food they get at school to be the same kind of food we would serve at our own kitchen tables.”

 A sample lunch menu with before and after comparisons is available on the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service webpage.

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