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Earlier this year First Lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack unveiled new standards for school meals that will result in healthier meals for kids across the nation.
The new meal requirements raise standards for the first time in more than 15 years and improve the health and nutrition of nearly 32 million children that participate in school meal programs every school day. The healthier meal requirements are a key component of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which was championed by the first lady as part of her Let's Move! campaign and signed into law by President Obama.
"As parents, we try to prepare decent meals, limit how much junk food our kids eat, and ensure they have a reasonably balanced diet," said First Lady Michelle Obama. "And when we're putting in all that effort the last thing we want is for our hard work to be undone each day in the school cafeteria.”
"Improving the quality of the school meals is a critical step in building a healthy future for our kids," said Vilsack.
The final standards make changes that many parents are already encouraging at home, including:
Ensuring students are offered both fruits and vegetables every day of the week;
Substantially increasing offerings of whole grain-rich foods;
Offering only fat-free or low-fat milk varieties;
Limiting calories based on the age of children being served to ensure proper portion size; and
Increasing the focus on reducing the amounts of saturated fat, trans fats and sodium.
USDA built the new rule around recommendations from a panel of experts convened by the Institute of Medicine. The standards were also updated with key changes from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans – the Federal government's benchmark for nutrition – and aimed to foster the kind of healthy changes at school that many parents are already trying to encourage at home, such as increasing the amount of whole grains, monitoring portion sizes and calorie counts designed to maintain a healthy weight.
USDA received an unprecedented 132,000 public comments on its proposed standards.
The new standards are expected to cost $3.2 billion over the next five years – less than half of the estimated cost of the proposed rule and are just one of five major components of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, now implemented or under development, which will work together to reform school nutrition. In addition to the updated meal standards, improvements to come include:
Foods and beverages sold in vending machines and other venues on school campuses will also contribute to a healthy diet;
Increased funding for schools – an additional 6 cents a meal is the first real increase in 30 years – tied to strong performance in serving improved meals.
Pricing standards for schools that ensure that revenues from non-federal sources keep pace with the federal commitment to healthy school meals and properly align with costs; and
Training and technical assistance to help schools achieve and monitor compliance.
The final nutrition standards also provide more time for schools to implement key changes, which are being phased in over a three-year period, starting in School Year 2012-2013.
USDA's Food and Nutrition Service administers 15 nutrition assistance programs including the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs, the Summer Food Service Program, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Together these programs make up the federal nutrition safety net.