Healthier Food, Smaller Portions: But Still No Potato Limit
By Daniel J. DeNoon
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
Jan. 25, 2012 -- For the first time in 15 years, the National School Lunch Program has raised nutrition standards.
The new rules mean kids will see more fruits and vegetables every day. Portions will be smaller. Only low-fat or skim milk will be served. There will be a lot more whole grains. And schools will get more money -- an extra six cents a meal -- from the federal government.
But Congress in 2011 forbade the USDA from limiting servings of potatoes. The law also allows schools to count the tomato paste on pizza as a vegetable. But Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says that won't throw a monkey wrench into the new standards.
"It was a bit unfortunate that some groups had powerful friends in Congress and basically tried to sort of short-change [kids] and create some confusion with these standards," Vilsack said at a news conference. "Our response was to set up minimum requirements. You have to have a minimum level of dark green vegetables, you've got to have a minimum level of red or orange or yellow vegetables."
Celebrity chef Rachael Ray, who joined Vilsack in announcing the new standards, says the potato/pizza loopholes won't keep the new rules from making school lunches healthier.
"OK, so congress left pizza a vegetable. But we are changing the game today," Ray said. "That [lunch] tray is going to have leafy greens and colorful fruit on it. If one of the other vegetables happens to be pizza or French fries in some schools that day, it doesn't negate the fact that on the tray there is going to be a goal, depending on grade level, of roughly 800 calories -- and it will include vegetables and fruits."
Vilsack said that schools will be encouraged to serve baked or roasted potatoes instead of French fries.
About 32 million U.S. kids eat school lunches. Many of these kids get half their daily calories from these meals.
New School Lunch Rules
Today's rules mean that school lunches must:
- Offer a minimum of 8 to 10 ounces of whole grains. No more than two desserts a week may be used to meet this minimum
- Offer at least a half cup per week of dark green vegetables
- Offer at least 3/4 cup red/orange vegetables for grades K-8, and at least 1 1/4 cups in grades 9-12
- Offer at least a half cup of beans or peas
- Offer at least a half cup of starchy vegetables. There is no limit on starchy vegetables
- Offer at least a half cup of fruit in grades K-8 and at least 1 cup of fruit in grades 9-12
- Offer at least a half cup (grades K-8) or 3/4 cup (grades 9-12) of "other vegetables," which may be met with any of the above vegetables except for starchy vegetables
- Allow tofu as a meat alternative
- Get federal reimbursement only if they offer at least a half cup of a fruit or vegetable
- Contain no fewer than 550 calories for grades K-5, 600 calories for grades 6-8, and 750 calories for grades 9-12
- Contain no more than 650 calories for grades K-5, 700 calories for grades 6-8, and 850 calories for grades 9-12
- Obtain less than 10% of total calories from saturated fat
- Have zero trans fat
- Limit salt according to grade level
- Offer at least a cup of low-fat or skim milk
These minimum requirements for vegetables and fruits are far lower than the recommended portions. For example, while the minimum vegetable requirement adds up to 3/4 of a cup for grades K-8, the recommended amount is 3 3/4 cups.
"Kids will get six-and-a-half more cups of fruits and vegetables than they did before," Vilsack said.
The cost of the new standards is expected to be $3.2 billion over the next five years.
There are new standards for school breakfasts, too, although schools will be given time to phase in the breakfast recommendations.
Although schools may phase in the new lunch recommendations over the coming year, Vilsack said that "several thousand schools" have already adopted the new school lunch plan.
Ray said school cooks would be getting new training, and get a chance to participate in healthy, tasty, and attractive recipe competitions. To start things off, Ray created a lunch menu served at the elementary school that served as a setting for today's announcement. That menu was:
- Tacos with turkey, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, salsa, Mexican brown rice, and whole-grain flat bread
- Black bean and corn salad
- Mixed fresh fruits
- Low-fat or non-fat milk
The new school lunch rules aren't the end of the program. In coming months, the USDA will set new rules for vending machines on school campuses.
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