WASHINGTON - Hoping to combat the growing epidemic of childhood obesity, the Obama administration yesterday announced its long-awaited changes to government-subsidized school meals, a final round of rules that adds more fruits and green vegetables to breakfasts and lunches and reduces the amount of salt and fat.
The announcement came months after the food industry won a vote in Congress to block the administration from carrying out an earlier proposal that would have reduced starchy foods like potatoes and prohibited schools from counting a small amount of tomato paste on a slice of pizza as a vegetable. Under the latest rules, potatoes are not restricted, and tomato paste can qualify as a vegetable serving.
The rules were announced by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Michelle Obama at Parklawn Elementary School in Alexandria, Va.
“As parents, we try to prepare decent meals, limit how much junk food our kids eat, and ensure that they have a reasonable balanced diet,’’ Obama said in a statement. “And when we are putting in all that effort the last thing we want is for our hard work to be undone each day in the school cafeteria.’’
Some 32 million children participate in school meal programs each day. The new rules are a major component of Obama’s campaign to reduce the number of overweight children through exercise and better nutrition.
The rules are the first changes in 15 years to the $11 billion school lunch program. They will double the amount of fruits and vegetables children are served in school and will require that all grains served are whole grains.
All milk served must be low fat, and for the first time the rules set limits on levels of salt and trans fats. They also set a minimum and maximum calorie intake per day based on student age.
The government estimates that the rules will cost about $3.2 billion more over the next five years, about half the cost of the proposed rules that were blocked last year.
Nutrition specialists praised the new standards.
“We applaud the US Department of Agriculture for issuing final guidance to help schools across the country serve healthier meals to students,’’ said Jessica Donze Black, project director for the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project, a joint project of the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “The updated nutrition standards for school meals are now in line with the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the federal government’s evidence-based guidance to promote health, reduce the risk of chronic diseases, and decrease the prevalence of obesity.’’
Representatives of the food industry also applauded the new rules.
“From our perspective, the new rules improve school nutrition but at the same time gives schools the flexibility to serve a variety of foods to meet the standards,’’ said Corey Henry, vice president of communication for the American Frozen Foods Institute. “It’s a balanced approach that meets the goals of everyone involved.’’
Earlier versions of the proposal met with political opposition because they would have cut the amount of potatoes served, a move not popular with lawmakers from potato-growing states. It also would have required schools to put more than a quarter cup of tomato paste on a slice of pizza for it to count as a vegetable serving, an idea that food service companies opposed as unappetizing.
The National Potato Council, a trade group, lobbied against the department’s plan to limit the amount of starchy foods like potatoes. The campaign paid off when a group of farm state senators, led by Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, blocked the rules. Collins said the proposal to limit potatoes was overly restrictive.
The American Frozen Food Institute stated that the previous guidelines were overly restrictive on sodium levels and required excessive amounts of tomato paste to qualify as a vegetable serving. The institute yesterday backed the latest rules, which continue to allow about a quarter-cup of tomato paste on a slice of pizza to count as a vegetable serving.
Still, Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit research group in Washington, said the rules would provide healthier meals and have a major impact in reducing childhood obesity rates.
“They should be good despite the congressional shenanigans,’’ she said in an e-mail.