First lady unveils tougher nutrition standards for school meals

First lady Michelle Obama on Wednesday unveiled tougher nutrition standards that school meals will have to meet starting this year.

The new standards were required by the 2010 school nutrition bill that increased funding for school meals. The new regulations, according to the Department of Agriculture, will:

• Ensure that students are offered both fruits and vegetables every day of the week;

• Substantially increase offerings of whole grain-rich foods;

• Offer only fat-free or low-fat milk varieties;

• 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.

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Congress weakened proposed Department of Agriculture nutrition regulations in the spending bills approved last month following intense lobbying from the frozen pizza and potato industries. But consumer groups still praised the final rules unveiled Wednesday.

Thanks to the new guidelines, Jessica Donze Black of the Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods Project said, "children will see more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains on their cafeteria trays. Meals also will include more low-fat and nonfat dairy products, and less fat and sodium, and calorie levels will be appropriate for different age groups. Not only are these changes good for students, but they also give parents more assurance that schools support their efforts to provide healthy foods to their kids."

The American Academy of Pediatrics also approved.

"The finalized school meal standards are the strongest to date, and provide more fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and overall healthier meals for our children," Academy President Robert Block said in a statement. "These standards will undoubtedly make significant improvements in the health of all our nation's children."

The food industry had mixed reactions.

American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI) President and CEO Kraig Naasz said the group "commends the U.S. Department of Agriculture for issuing new school meal nutrition standards that promote improved childhood nutrition and address concerns raised by school nutritionists and frozen food producers.  

"We especially value our partnership with school nutritionists, and we’re proud of our role in helping them provide school children with the nutritious meals they need to fuel growing minds and bodies."

But potato growers feel the rule unfairly limits schools' ability to put starchy vegetables on the menu.

"USDA's final rule falls short of giving schools flexibility in the breakfast program to meet nutritional goals within their constrained budgets," John Keeling, executive vice president and CEO of the National Potato Council, said in a statement. "The rule’s prescriptive nature in promoting certain groups of vegetables over others will increase costs while handcuffing local schools’ abilities to meet USDA’s nutrition, caloric, fat and sodium requirements.

The first lady announced the new rules alongside Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and celebrity chef Rachael Ray at an elementary school in Alexandria, Va.

Implementing the nutrition standards will cost an estimated $3.2 billion over five years. 

School lunches will cost five cents more in 2012 to help cover new food and labor costs, according to the federal rule. The total cost increase will be 10 cents by 2015, the same year the price for a school breakfast will have risen 27 cents.

The cost of the standards will be partially offset by other provisions in the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, including "a la carte foods" revenue that should produce "over $1 billion a year in new food revenues beginning in School Year 2011-2012." 

Rache Leven contributed.

This story was updated at 1:47 p.m. and at 2:30 p.m. with comment from food industry groups.