USDA gets solid "A" for school meal fixes

Published on January 27 2012 - 5:41 PM
USDA Gets Solid

Will pizza and French fries soon disappear from school cafeterias? In a word, no. More on that later. But thanks to new rules issued this week by First Lady Michelle Obama and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, school meals are about to undergo a major nutritional makeover for the better.

Some 32 million school-aged children eat as many as half of their daily calories at schools. But for many years now, too many of those calories weren’t coming from the right sources. School lunches typically served up a lot of fast-food analogues, and the kinds of things that should make up the bulk of a growing kid’s diet—whole grains, fruits and vegetables, beans, fish, low-fat poultry—weren’t at the center of a typical school lunch or breakfast.

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But in 2010, Congress passed and President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, requiring the USDA to base nutrition standards for school meals on current science, and allowing the agency to set standards for all the foods sold in schools outside the meal program, like through vending machines.

Once the new standards are implemented, kids’ lunch trays will have roughly twice the amount of fruits and vegetables, and in greater variety. Besides having minimum calorie requirements, important to prevent hunger, the new rules set maximum calorie ceilings, important to reduce the risk of weight gain and obesity. Breads will have to be “whole-grain rich,” perhaps not 100-percent whole wheat bread, but a marked improvement over the white breads, pizza crusts, and rolls typically served in schools.

As I indicated, pizza and French fries won’t be limited. Lobbyists for each of those interests got their allies in Congress to make sure of that. But even those foods will be healthier, because they’ll have to comply with new curbs on sodium and trans fat.

What will be disappearing once and for all are sugary sodas and other junk foods from vending machines in schools. That will happen once USDA issues separate standards, also called for by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Those rules will apply throughout the whole school grounds and during the whole school day, whereas the old rules only gave USDA authority to control what’s served in the cafeteria during mealtimes.

This historic advance is the result of years of parents’ fighting battles—sometimes winning, sometimes losing—over school meals at the state and local level, as well as of sustained grassroots campaigning by health groups and anti-hunger advocates. (I’m proud that my colleague Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy here at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, was invited to accompany—with a handful of others—the First Lady as she unveiled the new rules.)
Parents certainly have every reason to be skeptical of things happening in Washington. But USDA deserves a solid “A” grade for ensuring greatly improved school meals.

Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D., is co-founder and executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit health advocacy organization supported largely by the 850,000 subscribers to its Nutrition Action Healthletter. CSPI is a key player in battles against obesity, cardiovascular disease, and other health problems, using tactics ranging from education to legislation to litigation. Jacobson has written numerous books and reports, including Nutrition Scoreboard, Six Arguments for a Greener Diet, “Salt: the Forgotten Killer,” and “Liquid Candy: How Soft Drinks are Harming Americans’ Health.”