WASHINGTON – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Thursday proposed overhauling the nutrition guidelines for public school meals for the first time since 1995, when Americans were mostly alarmed by the fat content of food.
The proposed rules are far more wide-ranging and would gradually reduce sodium, limit starchy vegetables, ban most trans fats, require fat-free or lowfat milk, increase whole grains, add more fruits and vegetables, and, for the first time,limit the number of calories children consume daily. The guidelines are consistent, Vilsack said, with first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative, which promotes healthier eating for children.
“The numbers are rather troubling. We have today nearly a third of our youngsters at risk of being obese or, in fact, are obese in our schools,” he said in a conference call. He added: “If we do not get our hands around the obesity epidemic in the United States by the year 2018, we will face nearly $344 billion of additional health-care costs. That’s money we won’t be able to spend on innovation and creating jobs and improving our education system.”
What’s more, Vilsack noted, the issue “raises some concerns about national security. Mission: Readiness, a bipartisan organization led by senior military leaders, reports that an estimated 9 million . . . young adults ages 17 to 24 are currently not fit for military service because they’re not physically able to do the work associated with military service.”
Experts on nutrition and school lunch programs generally welcomed the proposed guidelines, which only slightly modify the original recommendations by the Institute of Medicine, the independent “health arm” of the National Academies.
“The new standards go a long way toward easing some of the issues school kitchens have making healthful meals,” said Ed Bruske, a school food journalist who writes the Slow Cook blog.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects to publish the final regulations this year. They would become the guidelines for the 2012-13 school year.