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USDA school lunch rules 'best ever' -- though pizza is still a 'vegetable'

January 25, 2012 |  5:47 pm

 Michelle Obama announced school lunch upgrades in Virginia.

Yes, there's plenty to celebrate with the USDA's new school meal standards, promoted Wednesday by First Lady Michelle Obama at a Virginia elementary school. Still, French fries will flow in school cafeterias.

The new rules are the first such standards to include whole grains and limits on sodium and trans fats,  and they'll "double the amount of fruits and vegetables" served to kids, said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington.

This makes them the "best ever," she said in an interview Wednesday with the Los Angeles Times. And yet, there are a couple of things she was less enthusiastic about -- the things "Congress meddled with."

First off: French fries.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture wanted to limit the amount of French fries to no more than two servings a week, "and Congress stepped in and said the USDA couldn't put any limits on any vegetables," Wootan said. Lawmakers apparently bowed to food lobbyists. 

Second: pizza -- it's still a vegetable.

The USDA no longer wanted pizza to count as a vegetable, Wootan said. "Congress interfered with that too."

The good news is, under the new rules, pizza can't be the only "vegetable" on a student's tray. There has to be an "additional side of vegetables with it, and the pizza will have whole-grain crust and be lower in sodium."

Positive changes, though, are plentiful, Wootan said -- the use of low-fat and nonfat milk, an emphasis on whole grains and an effort to control the amount of sodium in children's meals.

Up until now, there's been "no limit on sodium," she said, only a recommendation, "which schools are free to, and do, ignore."

The average high school lunch contains almost 1,600 milligrams of sodium, she said, more than half the recommended daily sodium intake for a high school-age student.

"These nutrition standards are a huge step forward from where the current standards are and from where most schools are today," Wootan said.  "It does mean that we all need to pull together -- parents, food manufacturers, food service workers, principals, USDA, to help schools meet these standards. It's not enough just to have standards on paper."

The changes to school meal standards are part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, championed by the first lady and passed in 2010.

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Photo: First Lady Michelle Obama has lunch with children at Parklawn Elementary School in Alexandria, Va., on Wednesday. Celebrity cook Rachael Ray is at left. The first lady announced the school meal changes at the school alongside Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

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