Is pizza a vegetable? Do American kids really need more potatoes? Should kids have access to high-sugar, high-salt foods in vending machines during the school day? Can teachers serve cupcakes for special school celebrations?
USDA Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon addressed those thorny issues and more in a visit with The Bee's editorial board this morning.
He called the Health, Hunger-Free Kids Act, passed by Congress in December 2010, the "first major changes in decades" to the school lunch program and "one of the few constructive bills to 'Get out of Dodge'" after the November 2010 election. The national school lunch program serves 32 million children at 101,000 schools. Concannon sees the controversies, and concessions, in Congress -- over potatoes, pizza, sodium content -- as just a "small portion" of the overall program. He said the new guidelines "will succeed in spite of that." He saw those fights as showing that "moneyed interests can trump science and the interests of children."
The final rules for school lunches were unveiled on Jan. 25. For the first time, these rules affect not only foods in the lunch line, but all foods served during the school day -- vending machines and a la carte foods. Yes, parents can still bring in cupcakes for a special school-day celebration. No, parents and booster groups cannot sell hot dogs, potato chips and soda during the school day, but can hold sales after school. Yes, vending machines will either have to change what they sell or be unplugged during the school day if they serve high-sugar soda or high-salt, high-fat potato chips.
During the school day, all food on school grounds has to meet the new dietary guidelines -- fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat milk, reduced saturated fat, trans fats and sodium.
But Concannon emphasized that schools will have to do things gradually so that kids actually eat the meals. Provide choices -- a pear or an apple, not just a whole apple. Start with whole-grain bread sticks before switching to whole-grain pizza crusts, etc.
Traditional food companies also will have to make adjustments -- for example, reformulating foods to reduce sodium content. And schools can get technical assistance to figure out how to do local purchasing of fresh, locally grown foods.
The changes will be phased-in over a three-year period, starting in fall 2012.