The guidelines double the amounts of fruits and vegetables in school lunches and increase offerings of whole grain-rich foods. The new standards set maximums for calories and cut sodium and trans fat, a contributor to high-cholesterol levels. They do not reduce French fries and other starches.
Schools may offer only fat-free or low-fat milk and must assure that children are getting proper portion sizes, the USDA said.
The new standards will phase in over a three-year period, starting in the 2012-13 school year.
As an example, the USDA said an elementary school lunch could be whole-wheat spaghetti with meat sauce and a whole-wheat roll, green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, kiwi, low-fat milk, low-fat ranch dip and soft margarine.
That lunch might replace a meal of a hot dog on a bun with ketchup, canned pears, raw celery and carrots with ranch dressing, and low-fat chocolate milk.
An expert said, “The new school meal standards are one of the most important advances in nutrition in a decade.” Another expert said, “A healthier population will save billions of dollars in future health care costs.”
However, a new study says school lunch programs are not the cause of childhood obesity.
Researchers followed 19,450 children from the fifth to the eighth grade. They wanted to know if the weight children gained differed based on the school lunch program.
They compared students going to schools where junk food was sold to schools where junk food was not sold.
The researchers could find no connection between obesity and going to a school where junk food was available. Further, there were no differences related to race, ethnicity, gender, or income.
The study director said, “Food preferences are established early in life.” The problem of childhood obesity cannot be blamed entirely on the schools.