Healthier School Lunches On The Way

New standards for school meals released on Wednesday  by the U.S. Department of Agriculture will help ensure healthy nutritious food served to every public school student in an effort to bolster their health and academic success. This effort was kicked-off with an appearance by First Lady Michelle Obama at Parklawn Elementary School in Alexandria, Virginia, where she joined Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to unveil the new standards for school meals.

The new federal guidelines are designed to help schools ensure that students are offered fruits and vegetables daily while increasing offerings of whole grain-rich foods. Proper portion sizes and servings of fat-free or low-fat milk varieties are also included in the meal requirements, which are a key component of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

The legislation 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 Mrs. 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.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the new requirements will raise standards for the first time in more than 15 years and improve the health and nutrition of nearly 32 million kids who participate in school meal programs every school day.

“When we send our kids to school, we expect that they won’t be eating the kind of fatty, salty, sugary foods that we try to keep them from eating at home,” Mrs. Obama said. “We want the food they get at school to be the same kind of food we would serve at our own kitchen tables.”

As a response to obesity and hunger challenges confronting many of the nation’s children, the new standards limit calories based on the age of children being served (to ensure proper portion size) and increase the focus on reducing the amounts of saturated fat, trans fats and sodium.

“On behalf of the more than 3 million members of the National Education Association (NEA), I applaud the new and improved nutrition standards,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “NEA proudly represents the school food service workers who are the ambassadors of change, educating students on making nutritional choices that are vital to a healthy lifestyle.”

Van Roekel praised Mrs. Obama “for her vision and work on this most critical issue.”

After addressing a large crowd of students, parents, school staff, education officials, media representatives, and others at the school library, Mrs. Obama and Secretary Vilsack joined students at Parklawn’s cafeteria, where food service employees and celebrity cook Rachael Ray served meals that meet the new nutrition standards for school lunches. Today’s menu list included tacos with ground turkey, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, salsa, Mexican brown rice, whole grain flat bread, black bean and corn salad, mixed fresh fruit, and low-fat or skim milk.

“When I was going to school in this county, you didn’t have these healthy food choices,” said Christal Tanks, an office assistant at Parklawn who has worked for the Fairfax County School District since 1979. “When my kids went to school in this county, they didn’t have these choices. This is progress.”

A member of the Fairfax Education Association (FEA), Tanks was able to meet the First Lady and speak with Rachel Ray.

“She (Ray) made the turkey taste like prime rib,” Tanks added.

The new standards, expected to cost $3.2 billion over the next five years, are just one of five major components of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, now implemented or under development. The nutrition standards will be largely phased in over a three-year period, starting with the 2012-2013 school year.

“Improving the quality of the school meals is a critical step in building a healthy future for our kids,” said Vilsack. “When it comes to our children, we must do everything possible to provide them the nutrition they need to be healthy, active and ready to face the future – today we take an important step towards that goal.”

“And let’s be clear, this isn’t just about our kids’ health,” Mrs. Obama said. “Studies have shown that our kids’ eating habits can actually affect their academic performance as well.  And I’m sure that comes as no surprise to the educators here today.  Anyone who works with kids knows that they need something other than chips and soda in their stomachs if they’re going to focus on math and science, right?  Kids can’t be expected to sit still and concentrate when they’re on a sugar high, or when they’re stuffed with salty, greasy food — or when they’re hungry.”

The new rule authorizes funding and sets policy for USDA’s core child nutrition programs: the National School Lunch Program,  the School Breakfast Program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, the Summer Food Service Program, and the Child and Adult Care Food Program.

The legislation, a revamping of the Child Nutrition Act first passed in 1966, authorizes all child feeding programs, including farm-to-school programs, an idea pushed by Mrs. Obama to encourage schools to buy produce from local farms and establish school gardens.