New USDA school meal nutrition standards praised by trade group as 'best ever' and much needed given high childhood obesity rates

WASHINGTON , January 25, 2012 (press release) – America’s school-aged children will have twice the amounts of fruits and vegetables on their school lunch trays, as well as more whole grains, and less sodium and trans fat, under the new nutrition standards for school meals unveiled today by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Despite heavy lobbying by the food industry and Congressional interference, the new standards are the best ever, according to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest.

“The new school meal standards are one of the most important advances in nutrition in decades,” said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. “They’re much needed, given high childhood obesity rates and the poor state of our children’s diets.”

Approximately 32 million children eat school lunches and breakfasts, providing half of many children’s daily calories, according to USDA. The standards released today were mandated by Congress in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, signed into law by President Obama in late 2010. In the next month or two, USDA will propose regulations setting nutrition standards for the rest of the foods sold in schools, including through vending machines, school stores, and the a la carte foods sold in the cafeteria alongside the USDA-reimbursed meal.

Although health groups praise the new standards, food industry lobbyists got Congress to prevent USDA from limiting French fries and ensure that pizza counts as a serving of vegetables due to its tomato paste.

“USDA, states, school officials, food manufacturers, food service workers, and parents need to work together to help all schools meet the new standards,” Wootan said.

The rules set calorie maximums for the first time and lower calorie minimums to better ensure that school meals address obesity, as well as hunger. All milk sold in schools will have to be low-fat or fat-free. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act will provide schools with additional funding, training, model menus and recipes, healthy product specifications for commodities, and more frequent reviews to ensure that school systems comply with the new standards.

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The Center for Science in the Public Interest is a nonprofit health advocacy group based in Washington, DC, that focuses on nutrition and food safety policies. CSPI is supported by the 900,000 U.S. and Canadian subscribers to its Nutrition Action Healthletter and by foundation grants.

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