First Lady and Ag Sec. Vilsak “do lunch” right!

January 25, 2012

Wednesday morning, First Lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsak announced what Vilsak called, “an historic opportunity to improve the quality and quantity of the school meal programs.” And change there is.

It was just over a year ago that President Obama signed into law the The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. This act adds $3.2 billion to the pot (originally estimated at $4.5 billion) and reauthorized child nutrition programs for five years.

This act offered many improvements – giving USDA authority to set nutritional standards for foods sold in schools, increased the amount of reimbursement (as the program is implemented) to the schools that meet updated nutritionals up to 11 cents per lunch and 28 cents per breakfast which is the first increase in 30 years, improvement of nutritional quality of commodity foods that schools receive from USDA, and to require schools to make information about the foods they serve available to parents, to name just a few.

The objective is relatively simple:  provide the 31 million children grades K to 12 who rely on school lunch, “nutrient dense (high in nutrients and low in calories meals,” and to empower them with healthy eating habits to reverse obesity and the diseases created by this epidemic. The USDA reports, “that many of these children receive most, if not all, of their meals at school,” and that, “one out of three children in the US are now considered overweight or obese.”

So is there really a change?

Wednesday morning, First Lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsak announced what Vilsak called, “an historic opportunity to improve the quality and quantity of the school meal programs.” And change there is. Highlights of the 280 page report include: lowering calories and sodium in all foods served, more fruits and vegetables, requiring all grains be rich in whole grains within two years, removing all trans fats, and that chocolate milk be fat-free. Compliance must begin by July 1, 2012.

For a sample of the USDA’s “before” and “after” 5-day menu go to

According to Diane Pratt-Heavner of the School Nutrition Association, which represents over 55,000 school nutrition professionals, many schools have already implemented many of these improvements. In fact, on their website,, there is a series of videos made by school nutritionists that highlight the changes that have already been implemented (full disclosure: I supply the editing of these videos to SNA). After Wednesday’s announcement Pratt said, “These new nutrition standards are great news for our kids. They will help school nutrition professionals build on their efforts to offer more fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-sodium entrees in our school cafeterias.”

Parents and others are concerned and involved. The USDA reported that they received a total of 133,268 public comments about the rule. No surprise, and when I spoke to school nutrition professionals at the Child Nutrition Industry Conference held in Orlando just about a week ago, they said one of the most important things that parents can do is come to their schools and actually sit down with the children and have lunch. When they do, many are surprised to see just how far school lunch has come since their school days.

Reviewing the final rule shows these topline changes to school lunch:

- Fruits will now be offered as a separate food component at lunch daily and a doubling of the minimum required fruit at breakfast by the school year 2014-5. Frozen fruits are allowed only without added sugars, canned fruits allowed with fruit juice, water or light syrup.

- Vegetables will also be offered as a separate meal component daily. The variety of vegetables will be increased to include these subgroups: dark green, orange, legumes. The proposed limit on starchy vegetables was removed (a controversial issue that Congress took on last year and effectively blocked the limit). Although a little known fact is that many schools around the country have been offering baked instead of French fries for years.

- A serving of grains must now be offered daily at both breakfast and lunch, and at least half of these must be whole-grain rich by July 1, 2013. After July 1, 2014 all grains must be whole-grain rich. 

- Meat and/or meat alternatives must be offered daily at both lunch and breakfast (2 ounce portion for students grade 9-12 and 1 ounce for younger students). USDA is also encouraging a variety of proteins foods to meet this requirement including: lean or extra lean meats, tofu, seafood, poultry, beans and peas, fat-free and low fat milk products, unsalted seeds and nuts.

- The rule specifies that only plain or flavored fat-free milk and unflavored low-fat milk be made available.

- Saturated fat is now limited to less than 10 percent of total calories for the week, and Trans Fats are banned.

- Reducing sodium content is a “key objective” of the rule. Currently USDA reports that the average sodium content for a school lunch is high: in excess of 1400 mg, and sets out a gradual reduction, by age of student, over the next ten years with the result being a reduction of between 25 and 50 percent.

And this appears to be just the start. The new rule includes provisions that will also regulate all foods sold in schools, including in vending machines.

This announcement may just move The First Lady’s goal of reducing obesity in a generation a step closer to reality.

This column originally appeared on Huffington Post on January 25, 2012.