First lady Michelle Obama on Wednesday unveiled new nutrition guidelines for school lunches that require cafeterias to serve more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, sufficient calories, low-fat and nonfat milk, and less sodium.
"This is a great celebration for us all," the first lady said at an appearance at Parklawn Elementary School in Alexandria, Va. Improving school nutrition is one of the five priorities of her "Let's Move!" campaign against childhood obesity.
Obama was accompanied by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, but the real star power was waiting in the cafeteria: celebrity chef Rachael Ray had designed a showpiece lunch menu for Parklawn, featuring ground-turkey tacos, brown rice, fruit, and low-fat milk. The first lady and Vilsack joined students for lunch.
The new guidelines reflect the kind of food parents want their kids to eat, Obama said.
“When we send our kids to school, we have a right to expect that they won’t be eating the kind of fatty, salty, sugary food that we’re trying to keep from them at home,” the first lady said. “We have a right to expect that the food they get at school is the same kind of food that we want to serve at our own kitchen tables.”
Obama said that embracing the new guidelines is possible for all schools, regardless of their circumstances. “We’re seeing changes like these in schools all across the country, in all sizes—rural, urban, and suburban,” the first lady said. “And I’m not just talking about schools in well-off areas with plenty of resources.”
The new guidelines come out of the 2010 reauthorization of the school-lunch program, and are the first revision to school-lunch guidelines in 15 years. The National School Lunch Program feeds 32 million schoolchildren each school day, Vilsack said.
Four policy riders passed by Congress last year modified proposed rules on tomato paste and potatoes, largely in response to concern from the food industry. The riders ensured that there are no limits on the amount of white potatoes and starchy vegetables that a cafeteria can serve, and that just an eighth of a cup of tomato paste, the partially dehydrated form of the fruit, can count as a vegetable—meaning that a slice of pizza can count as a vegetable serving.
Schools will receive an additional 6 cents a meal to help them improve their menus, according to the Agriculture Department. The department expects the new standards to cost $3.2 billion over the next five years. Implementation will begin this fall, and schools have three years in order to phase in the necessary changes.
The nutrition standards may expand to include food offered in school vending machines, Vilsack said.
“This is a movement that has started. It’s gaining momentum,” Vilsack said. “It will also involve, later in the process, a desire on our part to make sure that vending machines that are available in schools send the same, consistent message that we’re sending during mealtimes,” he said—replacing salty, sugary snacks with healthy alternatives.
Food isn’t cooked at Parklawn—it’s warmed up, after being mass-produced at a central district facility, according to Katherine Freeman, a second-grade teacher at the school. Still, the children in the cafeteria seemed to be chomping down on their turkey tacos, and the tables were littered with chewed-up orange slices. Many kids had a small container of low-fat chocolate milk.
The American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society Action Network, and the American Academy of Pediatrics all sent out statements praising the new guidelines. The American Academy of Pediatrics called the new standards “the strongest to date,” and the American Cancer Society noted that one-third of cancer deaths are linked to “poor diet, physical inactivity, and overweight and obesity.”
About a third of American children and adolescents are either overweight or obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.