By Stewart Doan

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, Jan. 13 – The U.S. Department of Agriculture published a proposed rule Thursday to align meals served through the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs with the 2005 “Dietary Guidelines for Americans.” The new proposed meal requirements will raise school nutrition standards for the first time in 15 years to help improve the health of the nearly 32 million kids that consume school meals daily.

All schools would be expected to implement the proposed rule beginning in school year 2012-2013. Compliance costs are estimated at nearly $7 billion over five years.

Children consume between one-third and one-half of daily calories at school, and one in every three of them is overweight or obese, an epidemic that if not addressed will add an estimated $344 billion to healthcare costs by 2018, more than 21 percent of current medical spending.

“That’s money we won’t be able to spend on innovation in creating jobs and improving our educational system,” Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack said on a conference call to discuss the planned upgrades to school meals that are based on recommendations from the National Academies’ Institute of Medicine (IOM).

The rule proposed by USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) would require school cafeterias to offer more fruits, vegetables and whole grains; offer only fat-free or low-fat fluid milk; reduce the sodium content of school meals substantially over time; control saturated fat and calorie levels; and minimize trans fat. For the first time, maximum, in addition to minimum, calorie levels would be established for each age/grade group.

“These are significant efforts on the part of USDA to work with school districts to essentially support what parents across the United States are interested in doing and that is to provide healthy and good, nutritious food for youngsters,” Vilsack told reporters.

USDA is accepting public comments on the proposal through April 13, 2011.

Compared to the current nutrition standards, the nutrient targets identified by IOM are higher for protein, and selected vitamins and minerals.

Under the proposed rule, the greatest change in school breakfasts is the increase in fruits, which doubles from the current requirement. In addition, grains increase by nearly 80 percent. For lunch, the greatest change is four more half-cup servings of fruits and vegetables per week.

The United Fresh Produce Association cheered the proposal.

“Fruits and vegetables really are the stars of this proposed rule,” said Dr. Lorelei DiSogra, United’s vice president of nutrition and health. “We are pleased that the proposed rule will double the amount of fruit served at breakfast, double the amount of fruits and vegetables served at lunch and increase variety.”

FNS estimates that the total costs of compliance with the rule will reach $6.8 billion over the five years ending in FY 2016.

The increases, it said, reflect increased costs to purchase the types of foods required by the proposed rule beyond those required to comply with current program rules – primarily increased fruits, vegetables, and whole grains – as well as increased labor costs due to more on-site food preparation, training for food service professionals, and some additional administrative costs.

The School Nutrition Association, which represents school food service professionals, welcomed the proposed new meal standards and said it looks forward to working with USDA “to find ways to help all schools stretch limited food service dollars” to meet them.

Vilsack pointed out that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, signed into law by President Obama last month, provides a yearly increase of $380 million to improve the quality of school meals. He said that USDA has asked chefs and nutrition experts to look at current school meal reimbursement rates and recommend “delicious, good-tasting meals” that are consistent with the proposed nutrition standards. To stay within existing food budgets, Vilsack suggested that school districts partner with hospitals and other institutions to purchase bulk quantities of food at discounted prices.

Because of the complexity of factors that contribute both to overall food consumption and to obesity, USDA said it was unable to define a level of disease or cost reduction that is attributable to the changes in meals expected to result from implementation of the rule.

However, “[a]s the rule is projected to make substantial improvements in meals served to more than half of all school-aged children on an average school day, we judge that the likelihood is reasonable that the benefits of the rule exceed the costs,” USDA said.

To read the complete 195-page USDA Food & Nutrition Service proposal, click HERE.

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