Recently, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) created new rules in an effort to boost the nutritional quality of school meals funded by the federal government. Roughly 32 million US school children eat meals that are funded by the federal government.
The new USDA rules are the first extensive change to school lunch rules in over 15 years and they are designed to help combat the growing obesity problem in the US. One third of the nation’s school children are overweight or obese, so the new meal standards are a welcome development for advocates of nutritional school lunches.
The latest changes come just months after Congress bowed to industry pressure to keep pizza listed as a vegetable with regard to school lunches. They also killed a proposal to limit the number of weekly servings of foods like french fries and other starchy vegetables.
The new USDA guidelines double the number of produce servings and mark a shift away from carbohydrates and fatty foods. The new rules also recommend serving only fat-free and low fat milk in addition to change portion sizes to be more appropriate for children. Reductions in saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium are also part of the new recommendations.
These rules are part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act which was one of the major priorities of First Lady Michelle Obama in her campaign to fight childhood obesity. The First Lady has made nutrition, exercise, and fighting childhood obesity her primary effort while the President has been in offce.
These new meal guidelines will be phased in over the next few years starting in the 2012-2013 school year and are estimated to cost over $3 billion over the next 5 years. HHFKA provides additional funding to school districts to help pay for the increased cost of serving more nutritious and balanced meals.
Congress created an uproar last November when they blocked the USDA from limiting the number of allowable servings of french fries in addition to ensuring that pizza counted as a vegetable because of the tomato contained in pizza. Large food and beverage conglomerates spent millions of dollars lobbying congress to block the USDA changes including companies like ConAgra, Kraft, and McCain Foods. Critics of the proposed rule changes – primarily on the conservative right – cheered the congressional action by insisting that the rules represented an unacceptable government overreach into the lives of Americans. Despite voting to block government action to improve the nutritional value of school lunches, many of these critics support better nutrition but stress the importance of parents and the community ensuring better nutrition and not the government.
Despite the heavy lobbying by the food industry that prompted limitations in the effectiveness of the new rules, many advocates for better school lunches viewed the guidelines as a victory. Margo Wootan, the nutrition policy director for Center for Science in the Public Interest said, “The new school meal standards are one of the most important advances in nutrition in decades.”
The USDA Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, Kevin Concannon, agreed stating in a conference call discussing the new rules, “What we are announcing today are science-based rules and regulations that are going to substantially improve the meal qualities across the United States for children.”
Other advocacy groups pointed out that the changes will not only have a positive impact on overall childhood health but also help to improve the national fiscal picture as well. The Environmental Working Group said that the changes could help reduce medical bills associated with obesity-related illnesses such as diabetes and other chronic conditions. Dawn Undurraga, EWG’s staff nutritionist, said, “A healthier population will save billions of dollars in future healthcare costs.”
In an effort to make the changes that will take place more understandable to the average American, the USDA gave a number of meal examples. One example of a potential school lunch under the new guidelines could include whole wheat pasta with meat sauce, a whole wheat roll, green beans, cauliflower, broccoli, kiwi, and low fat milk. This type of lunch would replace the current school lunch staples that often look like a hot dog on a white bun, ketchup, chocolate milk, canned pears, and celery and carrots with ranch dressing. In addition to the nutritional guidelines, the new USDA rules will increase the number of inspections of school lunch menus.