USDA makes healthy changes to school meals, including pizza

On Wednesday, First Lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack unveiled new standards for school meals that will result in healthier items for kids across the nation.

The new meal requirements will raise standards for the first time in more than 15 years with an objective of improving the health and nutrition of nearly 32 million kids that participate in school meal programs daily.

The healthier meal requirements are a key component of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which was championed by the First Lady as part of her Let's Move! campaign and signed in to law by President Obama.

"As parents, we try to prepare decent meals, limit how much junk food our kids eat, and ensure they have a reasonably balanced diet," said First Lady Michelle Obama. "And when we're putting in all that effort the last thing we want is for our hard work to be undone each day in the school cafeteria. When we send our kids to school, we expect that they won't be eating the kind of fatty, salty, sugary foods that we try to keep them from eating at home. We want the food they get at school to be the same kind of food we would serve at our own kitchen tables."

The final standards include:

  • Ensuring students are offered both fruits and vegetables every day of the week;
  • Substantially increasing offerings of whole grain-rich foods;
  • Offering only fat-free or low-fat milk varieties;
  • Limiting calories based on the age of children being served to ensure proper portion size; and
  • Increasing the focus on reducing the amounts of saturated fat, trans fats and sodium.

The USDA built the new rule around recommendations from a panel of experts convened by the Institute of Medicine. The standards were also updated with key changes from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

USDA received an unprecedented 132,000 public comments on its proposed standards (available online) – and made modifications to the proposed rule where appropriate.

The new standards are expected to cost $3.2 billion over the next five years -- less than half of the estimated cost of the proposed rule and are just one of five major components of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act.

"Two-thirds of elementary school teachers surveyed by Share Our Strength told us that 'most' or 'a lot' of their students rely on school meals as their primary source of nutrition. Share Our Strength applauds the First Lady and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for enhancing the nutrition standards for school meals, a critical component of ensuring all kids – especially those who rely on free and reduced price schools meals – get the healthy foods they need each day," said Bill Shore, founder and executive director, Share Our Strength.

Pizza, a school lunch staple, is included under the new guidelines. Some pizza chains, including Pizza Fusion and Domino's, have school lunch partnerships that may be affected by the changes.

Domino's Smart Slice program launched last year and is centered on the company's white whole-wheat, reduced-fat and reduced-sodium pizza, which is being delivered to schools as a healthy lunch alternative.

Read more about health and nutrition

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