Next on the feds' menu? Overhauling school lunches.
The Obama administration is trying to improve the nutrition of school lunch menus, and it's putting at least $4.5 billion behind it.
What kids eat – especially when they're in school – has never gotten more attention.Skip to next paragraph
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The first lady has made improving school lunches a central plank of her campaign to tackle childhood obesity. An ABC hit reality show had celebrity chef Jamie Oliver working with cafeteria workers in Huntington, W.Va., to chuck items like frozen breakfast pizzas from the menu and replace them with healthy, made-from-scratch alternatives.
Even the US military is drawing attention to kids' diets, with a study released in April by an officers' group showing that 27 percent of people aged 17 to 24 are too overweight to join the armed forces.
Now, the Obama administration is trying to make some of the biggest changes to the Child Nutrition Act – which governs the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs – since it went into effect nearly a half century ago. A bill currently before the Senate would authorize $4.5 billion in new funding over 10 years, and the administration has outlined a proposal for twice that much.
"It's a recognition that we've learned more," says Tom Vilsack, the secretary of Agriculture. "Since most youngsters have the opportunity through the school system to have school breakfast or lunch, it's important to make sure what we provide adds to their nutritional well-being rather than be detrimental to it."
'Not just the vending machines'
The administration's proposal would give Secretary Vilsack the power, for the first time, to set nutrition standards for all food sold in a school building – even those in vending machines or an a la carte line. It's a change that many nutrition advocates say is needed.
"When you walk into a school – and certainly a high school – it's pervasive. Food is sold everywhere," says Tracy Fox, a food consultant in Washington. "It's not just the vending machines. A lot of the items in a cafeteria sold next to the school meal are very unhealthy choices." She has seen kids sit down with nothing but two doughnuts and Gatorade – bought at the school – for lunch.
The Department of Agriculture (USDA) plans to revise guidelines for school lunches to more closely match recommendations issued last fall by the Institute of Medicine: increase vegetables, fruits, and whole grains; limit sodium, calories, and fat.
In contrast to past years, there seems to be no significant opposition to the proposed changes from the food and beverage industry. But at a time when budgets are tight, finding ways to improve nutrition without increasing costs can be a challenge.