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New federal guidelines will make school food healthier
Healthier School Lunc boae
A student puts apple slices on his tray during lunch at Central High School in St. Paul, Minn. Schoolchildren would have to pick up more whole grains, fruits and vegetables on the lunch line under proposed new federal standards for school lunches. The Agriculture Department proposal applies to lunches subsidized by the federal government and would be the first major nutritional overhaul of school meals in 15 years.

Changes could be ahead for local lunch programs.

A new proposal by the U.S. Department of Agriculture would require schools with lunches subsidized by the federal government to cut the amount of sodium by more than half.

Lunches would also have to include more grains and low-fat milk.

They also would limit kids to only one cup of starchy vegetables a week, so schools couldn't offer french fries every day.

Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield said he supports the proposed rules, but adds the district's lunch program is ahead of the curve.

"We've made changes already this year to lower sodium and we have no fryers in our kitchens. We bake our food," Schofield said.

The proposal is the first major nutritional overhaul of school meals in 15 years and comes just weeks after President Barack Obama signed into law a child nutrition bill that will help schools pay for the healthier foods.

Hall County School Nutrition Director Hillary Savage said school lunches have had a lot of attention lately, thanks to the first lady. Michelle Obama helped launch a national campaign against childhood obesity earlier this year.

Savage said during the past three years, Hall County has revised its menus and developed stricter nutritional standards.

"Our focus is we want high quality, nutritious meals served to kids, and we bring in fresh fruit and vegetables to put on the menu everyday," Savage said.

"We don't bring in anything that doesn't meet our nutritional standards," she added.

Gainesville City Schools Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said nutrition and childhood obesity is a major concern today, and she wasn't surprised the DOA released a new set of regulations.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the new standards could affect more than 32 million children and are crucial because kids can consume as much as half of their daily calories in school.

"If we don't contain obesity in this country, it's going to eat us alive in terms of health care costs," Vilsack said Wednesday.

While many schools are improving meals already, others are still serving children meals high in fat, salt and calories. The new guidelines are based on 2009 recommendations by the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences.

The subsidized meals that would fall under the guidelines proposed this week are served as free and low-cost meals to low-income children and long have been subject to government nutrition standards. The new law for the first time will extend nutrition standards to other foods sold in schools that aren't subsidized by the federal government, including "a la carte" foods on the lunch line and snacks in vending machines. Those standards, while expected to be similar, will be written separately.

The announcement is a proposal, and it could be several years before schools are required to make changes.

The new USDA guidelines would:

Establish the first calorie limits for school meals.

Gradually reduce the amount of sodium in the meals over 10 years, with the eventual goal of reducing sodium by more than half.

Ban most trans fats.

Require more servings of fruits and vegetables.

Require all milk served to be low fat or nonfat, and require all flavored milks to be nonfat.

Incrementally increase the amount of whole grains required, eventually requiring most grains to be whole grains.

Improve school breakfasts by requiring schools to serve a grain and a protein, instead of one or the other.

However, a concern is that the proposal could be costly to implement.

"The public needs to recognize this could impact funding and the cost of school lunches. Any development needs to be tracked to see what this means in terms of funding allocations," Dyer said.

Some school groups have criticized efforts to make meals healthier, saying it will be hard for already-stretched schools to pay for the new requirements. Some conservatives, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, have charged that telling children what to eat is a case of government overreach.

Vilsack says he understands the new standards may pose some challenges for school districts, but he believes they are necessary. He compares obesity and related diseases like diabetes to a truck barreling toward a child, and the new guidelines to a parent teaching that child to look both ways before crossing the street.

"You want your kid to be able to walk across the street without getting hit," he says.

According to the USDA, about a third of children 6 to 19 years old are overweight or obese, and the number of obese children has tripled in the past few decades.

The Agriculture Department also is planning to release new dietary guidelines for the general public, possibly as soon as this month. Those guidelines, revised every five years, are similarly expected to encourage less sodium consumption and more grains, fruits and vegetables.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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