By Nanci Hellmich, USA TODAY
Hold the french fries and salt.
The government is calling for dramatic changes in school meals, including limiting french fries, sodium and calories and offering students more fruits and vegetables.
The proposed rule, being released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will raise the nutrition standards for meals for the first time in 15 years.
This is the "first major improvement" in the standards that "we've seen in a generation, and it reflects the seriousness of the issue of obesity," says Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
About a third of children and adolescents — 25 million kids – are obese or overweight. Extra pounds put children at a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other health problems. An analysis in 2005 found that children today may lead shorter lives by two to five years than their parents because of obesity.
Vilsack says addressing the childhood obesity problem is critical for kids' health, future medical costs and national security, as so many young adults are too heavy to serve in the military.
The new meal standards are designed to improve the health of nearly 32 million children who eat lunch at school every day and almost 11 million who eat breakfast. Overall, kids consume about 30% to 50% of their calories while at school.
Among the requirements for school meals outlined in the proposed rule:
•Decrease the amount of starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, corn and green peas, to one cup a week.
•Reduce sodium in meals over the next 10 years. A high school lunch now has about 1,600 milligrams of sodium. Through incremental changes, that amount should be lowered over the next decade to 740 milligrams or less of sodium for grades through 9 through 12; 710 milligrams or less for grades 6 through 8; 640 milligrams or less for kindergarten through fifth grades.
•Establish calorie maximums and minimums for the first time. For lunch: 550 to 650 calories for kindergarten through fifth grade; 600 to 700 for grades 6 through 8; 750 to 850 for grades 9 through 12.
•Serve only unflavored 1% milk or fat-free flavored or unflavored milk. Currently, schools can serve milk of any fat content.
•Increase the fruits and vegetables kids are offered. The new rule requires that a serving of fruit be offered daily at breakfast and lunch and that two servings of vegetables be offered daily at lunch.
Over the course of a week, there must be a serving of each of the following: green leafy vegetables, orange vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes, summer squash), beans, starchy and other vegetables. This is to make sure that children are exposed to a variety of vegetables.
• Increase whole grains substantially. Currently, there is no requirement regarding whole grains, but the proposed rules require that half of grains served must be whole grains.
•Minimize trans fat by using products where the nutrition label says zero grams of trans fat per serving.
Vilsack says the government is not trying to "dictate" what people eat but is trying to help parents make sure their youngsters "are as healthy, happy, productive and as successful as God intended them to be."
Implementing the new meal standards is part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 signed into law by President Obama on Dec. 13.
The proposed rule applies to school breakfast and lunch but not to what's sold in vending machines and school stores. Those will be addressed later in a separate rule.
Cleaning up the "school nutrition environment" would make a big difference to kids' diets — and teach them good eating habits that could affect them the rest of their lives, says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest and an advocate of healthier school meals. "Kids learn by doing, and so serving a healthy meal is such an important part of their education."
Wootan says the challenge now is for school food-service personnel to make these changes, which will cost more. "They need technical assistance, support, model recipes, model product specifications. They need to know how to make a healthier chicken nugget or healthier pizza.
"There are schools already serving healthy foods that kids really like. The problem is that not enough schools know how to do it."
Currently, schools receive $2.72 from the federal government for every child who is on the free lunch program. Schools that meet the new standards will get another 6 cents per meal.
Nancy Rice, president of the School Nutrition Association, a non-profit professional organization representing school food-service professionals, says that schools are going to have to "stretch limited food-service dollars. We are going to have to do the best we can and to try to cut in other areas. Everything we are doing is to benefit kids."
Cutting back on fries could be a shock to some students, she says. Some school systems still sell fries every day in a la carte lines, she says. "But the vast majority of the school systems are already limiting french fries, and when they are serving them, they are baking them."
The agriculture department is asking for input on the proposed rule during a public comment period that ends April 13.
When the regulation is final, schools will be required to meet the new standards to get government reimbursement on school meals.
The rule does not need congressional approval.