The US Department of Agriculture has announced new standards for the country’s school meals, which it claims will result in healthier eating for children nationwide. The new standards were unveiled by Michelle Obama, First Lady, and Tom Vilsack, Agriculture Secretary. They explained that the USDA’s move will affect the health and wellbeing of approximately 32 million school kids.

According to a news release issued today by the USDA, this is the first improvement in school meal standards in over 15 years. This move is part of the requirements stipulated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act – a law backed by Michelle Obama and signed by President Obama.

First Lady Michelle Obama, said:

“As parents, we try to prepare decent meals, limit how much junk food our kids eat, and ensure they have a reasonably balanced diet. 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.

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. We want the food they get at school to be the same kind of food we would serve at our own kitchen tables.”

Tom Vilsack said:

“Improving the quality of the school meals is a critical step in building a healthy future for our kids. 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.”

Those who devised the final standards say that they are similar to what many parents are currently encouraging their children to follow, and include:

  • Making sure pupils have access to fruit and vegetables every day
  • Considerably widening the range of whole grain-rich foods available
  • Focusing on just offering low-fat or fat-free dairy produce
  • Linking portions to children’s age so that the right number of calories are provided
  • Minimizing foods’ trans fats, saturated fat, and sodium content

Click on the links below to see a sample lunch menu, and a before vs. after comparison:

The new rule regarding school meals was built-on by the USDA from a panel of experts convened by the IoM (Institute of Medicine). In a communiqué, the USDA wrote:

“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 making sure that kids are offered both fruits and vegetables each day, more whole grains, and portion sizes and calorie counts designed to maintain a healthy weight.”

132,000 public comments were sent to the USDA – many were used to modify the proposed rule.

According to Kevin Concanno, USDA Under Secretary:

“We know that robust public input is essential to developing successful standards and the final standards took a number of suggestions from stakeholders, school food service professions and parents to make important operational changes while maintaining nutritional integrity.”

The US government says the new standards will cost approximately $3.2 billion to implement over the next five years, about half of what was initially calculated. The following improvements are coming, apart from the updated school meal standards:

  • Vending machines will be included in healthy diet options
  • Each meal will receive an extra 6 cents in funding. Authorities say this is the first increase in three decades. The funding will be tied to improved nutritional standards.
  • Schools will receive help in training and technical assistance, so that compliance can be maintained and monitored

Schools will have three years to phase in the new nutrition standards released today.

Written by Christian Nordqvist