The USDA's New School Nutrition Standards Are Worth Celebrating

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The new standards call for more vegetables and fruits, a requirement for whole grains, and for all milk to be just one percent or less.

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Michelle Obama and Tom Vilsack announced new nutrition standards for school meals yesterday, to what seems to be near-universal applause (the potato growers are still miffed, according to the New York Times).

The new standards are best understood in comparison to current standards (see chart). They call for:

  • More fruits and vegetables.
  • A greater range of vegetables.
  • A requirement for whole grains.
  • All milk to be one percent or less.
  • Only non-fat milk to be permitted to be flavored.

This may not sound like much. But given what it has taken USDA to get to this point, the new standards must be seen as a major step forward.

See, for example, the comparison of an old and new weekly menu (this has not changed since USDA's original proposal in January of last year).

The new one looks so much better. Now it's up to schools to make the new standards work, make the foods taste yummy, and get kids to be willing to try new foods.

To review the history: This all started when the USDA asked the Institute of Medicine to design nutrition standards that would:

  • Increase the amount and variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Set a minimum and maximum level of calories.
  • Focus more on reducing saturated fat and sodium.

The new standards come pretty close to what the IOM recommended (see the earlier chart), with some now-famous exceptions. The IOM proposed limits on starchy vegetables. USDA then proposed to limit starchy vegetables to two servings a week. It also set a minimum for the amount of tomato sauce on pizza that could count toward vegetable servings.

Under pressure from potato growers and suppliers of school pizza, Congress weighed in and overruled the USDA on both counts. The result: pizza now counts as a vegetable.

To give some idea of the extent of lobbying on all sides of this issue, USDA's January proposal elicited 132,000 public comments (these are someplace at www.regulations.gov and are addressed in the Federal Register notice).

I asked in a previous post whether this kind of congressional micromanagement made sense (absolutely not, in my view). I also wrote previously about the intense lobbying efforts to make sure these standards would never be released.

Despite congressional and industry opposition, the standards are out.

Applause is very much in order for Obama's leadership on this issue.

Good work. Now let's get busy on the next challenges:

  • Set nutrition standards for competitive foods in schools -- those sold outside of the lunch program as snacks and meal replacements.
  • Teach kids where food comes from.
  • Teach kids to cook.

For the record:

The initial press release: It is headlined "First Lady to Announce New Nutrition Standards for Meals Served in America's Schools: Public-Private Partnership Aims to Connect More Kids to Nutrition Programs." I'm not sure where the Public-Private Partnership comes into this.

USDA's actual press announcement provides links to the Nutrition Standards homepage and other relevant documents.

Image: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters.

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This post also appears on Food Politics, an Atlantic partner site.

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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