School lunch counters will start replacing breaded patties and canned fruit with fresh tomatoes and chef salad as the Obama administration moves forward with an overhaul of U.S. meal standards that may cost states and local agencies $7 billion.
The first major change to federal school meals in 15 years is being unveiled today, after being delayed last year as some local governments balked at the price and companies including ConAgra Foods Inc., maker of Hunt’s tomato products, lobbied to block stricter limits on potatoes and tomato paste in pizza.
Local municipalities and states will absorb the costs -- estimated at 14 cents per lunch in the 2011 proposal -- coming from buying more fruit and whole grains, as well as labor expenses related to on-site preparation. A bill introduced this month in Arizona would change state law so schools can drop out of the national lunch program rather than follow the new rules.
“There is no escaping the argument that this is a healthier menu for kids,” Arizona State Senator Rich Crandall, a Republican representing Mesa, said in a telephone interview. “The problem is they are mandating these new standards with no new funding to back it up.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture will probably establish minimum and maximum calorie levels based on age and reduce the sodium content in meals, according to the draft proposal from June. President Barack Obama sought the changes because a third of U.S. children are overweight or obese, contributing to $3 billion in annual medical costs, according to the draft rule.
Rachel Ray Lunch
“They are the most important advances in nutrition in a decade,” said Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group. “They’re really needed.”
The regulations, to be published in the Federal Register, are being promoted today by First Lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who are scheduled to eat lunch with elementary students in Alexandria, Virginia, at 11:30 a.m. School employees and celebrity cook Rachael Ray will serve helpings of a meal that meets the new standards, according to the USDA.
Some municipalities have already adjusted school menus in a bid to reduce obesity in their communities.
New York Obesity
The obesity rate in grade-school children in New York dropped 5.5 percent between 2006 and 2010, as that city started programs to boost physical activity and encourage healthier eating habits. City officials attributed the drop seen in the study of 947,765 students to programs that eliminated deep-fried food and sugary sodas in cafeteria, limited junk food in fund raisers and added low-fat milk and salad bars to school menus.
Congress in November halted some of the changes the administration has sought to mandate nationwide, including reducing the amount of potatoes and increasing the amount of tomato paste that qualifies as a vegetable.
The USDA had wanted to change the amount of tomato paste that earns a vegetable credit from one-eighth of a cup to a half cup, said Corey Henry, a spokesman for the American Frozen Food Institute, a McLean, Virginia-based trade organization that represents 90 percent of U.S. frozen-food production.
“Tomato paste is incredibly nutrient dense, which is why USDA’s current standard works,” Henry said in an e-mail.
ConAgra, based in Omaha, Nebraska, and Schwan Food Co. were among companies that had argued against some requirements in the initial proposal, which would have potentially hurt their business. Schwan’s Food Service Inc. of Marshall, Minnesota, holds a 70 percent market share on pizza in the $9.5 billion school food-service industry.
In all, U.S. schools served 2.9 billion free lunches as part of the National School Lunch Program in fiscal 2010, as well as about 500 million reduced price lunches and 1.8 billion full-price lunches, according to the draft rule.
The food-service industry was also seeking a more gradual reduction in sodium than the earlier USDA proposal.
Sixty percent of district-school food-service directors expected costs to increase and more food to be wasted under the proposal, according to a 2011 survey by the Washington-based National Potato Council on the draft proposal.
“Food service directors have been really concerned they’ll be required to load down the kids plates with fruits and vegetables they won’t eat, which will increase costs,” Mark Szymanski, spokesman for the council, which focuses on public policy and increasing potato consumption, said in an interview.
--With assistance from Amanda J. Crawford in Phoenix and Elizabeth Lopatto in New York. Editors: Romaine Bostick, Adriel Bettelheim.
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