USDA Seeks More Healthful School Meals

By Sally Squires
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 7, 2007

As part of a sweeping effort to help improve nutrition for schoolchildren and fight childhood obesity, the Agriculture Department is proposing for the first time to require schools to bring their cafeteria menus into compliance with the latest U.S. dietary guidelines.

While the USDA has limited the sale of soda and some junk foods in school cafeterias, it has not required schools to implement the 2005 Dietary Guidelines, which call for increased consumption of whole grains, fruit and vegetables. Nor does it regulate vending machines, a la carte menus, or other food and beverages sold in schools outside the cafeteria, although a bill introduced by Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) seeks to have it do that.

USDA Secretary Mike Johanns said, "We are proposing very significant increases in fruit and vegetables," adding that "we want to reach out to schools and give them more flexibility" in providing healthier options to students.

The plan is one of a handful of nutrition initiatives in the USDA's proposed 2007 farm bill. They include changing the name of and easing some eligibility requirements for the Food Stamp Program, which serves about 26 million low-income and elderly people. Also included are proposals for nutrition education and a five-year, $100 million competitive grant program for combating obesity.

The USDA is proposing to spend $6 million to provide guidance and technical assistance to school food professionals to bring cafeteria meals in line with the latest guidelines.

"We're bringing them up to speed because they are way behind," Nancy Montanez Johner, USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, said at a briefing on the farm bill.

"This is the first time that the USDA -- and Congress -- have addressed the nutrition standards for school meals in a while," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group. "They should've done this the day that the 2005 Dietary Guidelines were issued because they knew what they were going to say . . . but they move at such a glacial pace that here it is a year and a half later, and the proposed regulations have not even come out."

Each year, the USDA provides 9 million breakfasts and 30 million lunches to students. Nearly 60 percent are served free or at a reduced price.

The 2005 update of the dietary guidelines made some of the biggest changes in recent years in urging greater consumption of whole grains, fruit, vegetables and nonfat dairy products, such as skim milk. Congress requires the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services to review the guidelines every five years.

Included in the farm bill are several large initiatives to increase schoolchildren's consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Numerous studies have shown that eating more fruit and vegetables, whether fresh, frozen, dried or canned, is linked to lower body weight, stronger bones, and lower risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. Yet national surveys show that only one in five Americans consumes the two cups of fruit recommended daily. Children under age 18 consume half or less of the recommended amounts.

The USDA proposes to spend $500 million in new, mandatory funding over the next 10 years for the purchase of additional fresh fruit and vegetables in school lunch and breakfast programs. The department also wants to shift $2.75 billion over the next 10 years to increase purchases of fruit and vegetables through its commodity programs -- a move that some said has little chance of success given the strong political forces likely to oppose such a change.

"Is Congress and the USDA going to have the political will to shift commodity purchases away from foods that children should eat less of, like meat, to fruit and vegetables, which children should eat more of?" asked Wootan. "The answer is that it will be very difficult."

Another nutrition initiative would expand nationwide a pilot program to provide fruit and vegetable snacks to schoolchildren. Created by legislation introduced by Harkin in 2002, the program now provides such snacks for free to students in 17 states and on three Indian reservations. It is supported by the National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity, a coalition of more than 300 organizations including the American Diabetes Association and the National Parent Teacher Association.

While lauding those efforts, Harkin and other critics argue that the USDA has been far too lax in regulating food in schools.

"Even as the quality of federally-reimbursed meals has improved, foods of little nutritional value -- candy, chips, and sweetened beverages -- have become increasingly available and consumed in most schools, where kids spend a significant portion of their day," Harkin said in a statement. "The federal government has done little -- far too little in my opinion -- to set basic nutrition standards for foods that are sold in our schools."

Later this month, an expert panel convened by the Institute of Medicine is expected to recommend nutrition standards for foods sold in school venues that are not regulated by the USDA, such as vending machines and fundraisers.

"Admittedly the changes need to be significant," Wootan said. "I understand that it takes some time. But they need to get this done, given how big the school lunch program is and how it impacts so many children's diets, health and obesity, which is as much a problem these days as hunger."

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