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US school lunch program to serve healthier foods under new rules

By Georgina Gustin, St. Louis Post-Dispatch –

ST. LOUIS — American schools will serve more of the good stuff — vegetables, fruits and whole grains — and less of the not-so-good — salt, fat and sugar — under new rules issued Wednesday, the first to significantly revamp the nation’s school lunch program in 15 years.

The rules, which will begin taking effect in July, require that any school receiving federal funds for breakfast and lunch make sweeping changes to its food lineup, an overhaul that health advocacy groups are calling a major step in the battle against childhood obesity.

The new rules “will greatly improve the nutrition quality of lunches and breakfasts,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, which also supported an earlier set of rules. “It’s a huge improvement. This is really a step forward from where most schools are today.”

School service directors Wednesday said they support them for the most part, praising the emphasis on fresh produce especially. But many acknowledged that they could present some challenges. For starters, some worry that students might turn up their noses at the new offerings.

“The food police approach doesn’t work,” said Michael Kanak, director of food services for the Parkway School District in Chesterfield, Mo. “You have to bring kids along to make them want to eat healthy.”

Kanak and others said they are concerned that the new requirements also could strain already overstretched budgets.

“It’s really going to get tight,” said Bridget Jordan, director of food services for the Clayton School District in St. Louis. “Fresh fruits and vegetables are expensive.”

The new rules will double the daily servings of fruit and vegetables, restrict milk offerings to fat-free and low-fat varieties, limit calories based on age and increase the amount of whole grains, among other things.

But they do not go as far as some advocates and the Obama administration had hoped. Proposed rules, issued last year, would have limited the servings of starchy vegetables — potatoes being the target — and not allowed tomato sauce to count as a vegetable. But the potato industry and food manufacturers pushed Congress to overturn the limitations, and lawmakers removed them from the rules last fall.

“We were disappointed when Congress stepped in and intervened,” Wootan said. “The final rules are not as strong as they could be, but they’re still very strong, and even though pizza will count as a vegetable, it will come with a vegetable side and a whole-grain crust.”

Schools around the St. Louis region said they had been watching the debate over the new rules closely. Many food service directors were alarmed when the proposed rules came out last year and were relieved to see that the new ones were more lax. The possibility that potatoes, which have recently been linked to weight gain in several studies, would be limited to two servings a week was particularly worrisome.

“Potatoes are inexpensive and liked by a lot of kids,” said Amy Moore, an instructor and dietitian with St. Louis University’s Department of Nutrition and Dietetics. “It’s not the potatoes we were concerned about, it was the frying.”

Katie Koester, director of food services for the Mehlville School District in St. Louis, was among the 133,000-plus people to weigh in on the original proposal during a three-month comment period last year.

“I had a huge concern with making kids take another vegetable,” Koester said. “I thought it would all end up in the trash.”

School districts say they already have been gearing up for the changes and stress that food lunches have come a long way from the days of square pizza and tater tots.

“We’re already doing it,” said Kanak. “Even our chocolate milk is fat-free. Sandwiches are served on whole wheat bread. We serve salads every day. We stopped doing french fries years ago. We don’t do any frying anymore.”

The rules issued Wednesday will impact the foods served in a cafeteria lunch line, and any school that receives subsidies for meals will have to adhere to them to continue being reimbursed. Districts will receive an additional 6 cents per meal if they meet the new standard.

Over the next five years, the required changes will cost districts $3.2 billion, but food-related revenue in those districts will be about $9 billion. The bulk of the revenue will come from the additional 6 cents, from required increases in prices charged to students who don’t quality for free or reduced-price lunches and prohibitions on discounting “a la carte” items.

In 2010, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which required the new standards. In coming years, new standards also will be drafted for a la carte food options and vending machine offerings, neither of which are federally subsidized.

But many people see the rules issued Wednesday as an important start.

“They needed to be updated, and it was overdue, and I’m happy to see they’re providing the funding,” Moore said. “The food service directors will have to be creative. We have a saying: If it’s nutrition, it has to end up in the kid’s stomach.”

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