Washington wants healthier school meals in bid to reduce obesity in kids

School meals for millions of children will be healthier under obesity-fighting USDA standards that double the fruits and vegetables in cafeteria lunches.

But french fries remain on the menu.

In the first major changes to school breakfasts and lunches in more than 15 years, the new guidelines will affect nearly 32 million children who eat at school. They will cost the federal government about $3.2 billion to implement.

The new meal requirements are part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act championed by first lady Michelle Obama. President Barack Obama approved the measure in late 2010.

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The guidelines, to be phased in over three years, double the amounts of fruits and vegetables in school lunches, and boost offerings of whole grain-rich foods. The new standards set maximums for calories and cut sodium and trans fat, a contributor to high-cholesterol levels. Schools may offer only fat-free or low-fat milk.

About 17 per cent of U.S. children and teenagers are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About one-third of U.S. adults are obese.

Fries with that?

Lawmakers altered the guidelines in November. They barred the USDA from limiting french fries and ensured that pizza counted as a vegetable because of its tomato paste.

Trade associations representing frozen pizza sellers like ConAgra Foods and Schwan Food, as well as french fry sellers McCain Foods and J.R. Simplot, were instrumental in blocking changes to rules affecting those items.

Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director for the non-profit Center For Science in the Public Interest, said the new standards were a big improvement despite food industry lobbying and the congressional revamp.

“The new school meal standards are one of the most important advances in nutrition in decades,” she said.

“A healthier population will save billions of dollars in future health-care costs,” added Dawn Undurraga, staff nutritionist with the Environmental Working Group.

As an example of a new meal, the USDA said an elementary school lunch could be whole wheat spaghetti with meat sauce and a whole wheat roll, green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, kiwi, low-fat milk, low-fat ranch dip and soft margarine.

That lunch would replace a meal of a hot dog on a bun with ketchup, canned pears, raw celery and carrots with ranch dressing, and low-fat chocolate milk.

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