Just like many Government departments, school meals are getting leaner.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced new nutrition standards for American school breakfast and lunch, one of which is a maximum number of calories per student: 650 for elementary, 700 for middle school, and 850 for high school. The sodium count will have a maximum as well, to be phased in over 10 years. Foods in both breakfast and lunch menus should be free of trans-fats. This is the first time ever for such requirements.
The changes, will take effect in the 2012 school year (meaning this fall), make some other significant changes, including increasing the percentage of fruits and vegetables on the school lunch plate and switching from whole milk to lowfat milk (or nonfat in the case of flavored milk). In addition, rice must be brown; and cereal, pasta, bread, and even pizza will be required to have whole grain listed as the No. 1 ingredient. (Pizza continues to be classified as a vegetable because of its tomato paste ingredient.)
The changes are part of the USDA's campaign, championed by First Lady Michelle Obama, to reduce childhood obesity. The Let's Move! campaign began in earnest with the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act and continued with a shift last year from the long-standing Food Pyramid to the new version, MyPlate.
Experts think that the effects could be quite striking. The number of American schoolchildren who eat school lunches is close to 32 million, with 11 million also eating school breakfast. The USDA is aiming toward lowering health care costs later on.
"Learning to make nutritious food choices at an early age is an important lesson for America's children," said Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association. "We strongly believe these new standards for school meals will help the nation's youth develop healthy food habits that will help lower obesity rates and ensure that the next generation can lead lives free of heart disease and stroke."
The idea of saving costs later is a comparison exercise, to be measured against the real current cost of the new USDA program, which will mean that the cost of preparing school meals will go up by 11 cents for lunch and 28 cents for breakfast. The five-year price tag is estimated at $3.2 billion.
The First Lady took the opportunity to also encourage parents to set model eating habits at home.
"When we send our kids to school, we expect that they won't be eating the kind of fatty, salty, sugary foods that we try to keep them from eating at home," Obama said.