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Students to see healthier school lunches under new USDA rules

Under new USDA rules school lunches will become healthier. NBC's Rehema Ellis reports.

Millions of schoolchildren in the United States will see more fruit and vegetables and less fat on their lunch plates under new U.S. Department of Agriculture standards unveiled Wednesday aimed at improving child nutrition and reducing childhood obesity.

"Improving the quality of the school meals is a critical step in building a healthy future for our kids," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "When it comes to our children, we must do everything possible to provide them the nutrition they need to be healthy, active and ready to face the future – today we take an important step towards that goal."

The changes mark the first overhaul of the school lunch program in more than 15 years and will affect the nearly 32 million children who eat at school. The new regulations will be phased in over the next three years, starting in the fall.

“We strongly support the regulations,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the Maryland-based School Nutrition Association. “The new nutrition standards for school meals are great news for kids.”

Under the new regulations, schools will be required to offer fruits and vegetables every day, increase the amount of whole-grain foods and reduce the sodium and fats in the foods served. Schools will also be required to offer only fat-free or low-fat milk. In addition, the menus will pay attention to portion sizes to make sure children receive calories appropriate to their age, according to Kevin Concannon, USDA under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services.

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The new requirements are part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act signed into law last year by President Barack Obama and championed by the First Lady Michelle Obama as part of her Let's Move! campaign.

First lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announce new nutrition standards for school meals. NBC's Erika Edwards reports.

"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 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.

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Statistics show that about 17 percent of U.S. children and teenagers are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But whether the kids will choose to eat the new, healthier foods remains to be seen. The new menus won't entirely eliminate favorite food choices among kids, like pizza and french fries, but they will provide alternatives. For example, instead of cheese pizza, students will receive whole wheat cheese pizza. Rather than tater tots, students will get baked sweet potato fries.   

"We know if it’s not delicious, kids aren’t going to eat it," said White House Chef Sam Kass. But he added that thousands of schools have already implemented many of the required changes and their chefs are making progress in designing appealing menus. "We're working very hard on that," he said.

Wendy Weyer, director of nutrition services for Seattle Public Schools, said her district is already complying with many of the new USDA standards, and taking other steps, such as having partnerships with local farmers and planting school gardens. "Seattle has been very progressive with changing the way we offer meals, offering fruits and vegetables every day, as well as whole grain-rich foods," she said.

Weyer said the biggest challenge will be reducing sodium content, "while keeping the meals palatable for our students."

Pratt-Heavner said parents will play an important role in supporting the new standards.  ”We all have to work to get the kids to make these healthier choices,” she said. “Students are more apt to pick up a fruit or vegetable in the lunch line if they have been introduced to those foods at home.” 

To support the changes, schools will receive another 6 cents per meal in federal funding, and the overall cost of implementing the new requirements is projected at $3.2 billion. To help minimize costs, schools will also have more flexibility in designing the school lunch line to reduce waste, Concannon said. Students, for example, will be allowed to pick and choose more items as they move through the line, rather than getting a plate served to them.

Weyer said the Seattle school district still needs to determine how far the additional money will go to cover the new requirements.

"It's not going to cover all the cost, but it's definitely going to help," Pratt-Heavner said.

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