Photo by the USDA.

There are 32 million reasons why the United States Department of Agriculture’s new school meal standards [PDF] are good news. That’s the number of children who participate in the National School Breakfast and Lunch programs in the U.S. and who will soon be served far more nutritious — and hopefully delicious — school meals.

Announced by First Lady Michelle Obama, who was instrumental in getting the new rules written by ensuring that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed in 2010, the updated meal standards are a huge improvement, in spite of last minute meddling by Congress. The standards are based on 2009 Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommendations and they include:

  • Doubling the amount of fruits and vegetables offered;
  • Increasing the variety of vegetables served to include dark greens, red/orange, and legumes;
  • Increasing offerings of whole grain-rich foods — half the grains must be whole grain-rich by July and all must be whole grain-rich by start of the school year in 2014;
  • Offering only fat-free or low-fat milk varieties (flavored must be fat-free);
  • Limiting calories based on the age of children being served, to ensure proper portion size; and
  • Reducing the amounts of saturated fat, trans fats, and sodium.

The total cost of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act will be $3.2 billion over five years (down from $6.8 billion in the USDA’s proposed rule). Since it does cost more to serve healthier meals, the increased costs have been covered by program changes and funding provisions such as:

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  • Eliminating the meat/meat substitute requirement at breakfast;
  • Lengthening the timeline for adding fruit to breakfast;
  • Providing an additional 6-cent federal reimbursement per meal for lunches that meet the new standards;
  • Ensuring that a la carte offerings are no longer subsidized by school meals (in some schools, this means that a la carte food prices will rise); and
  • Allowing students to opt for smaller servings of fruits and vegetables to help eliminate “plate waste.”

Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who has led the fight to improve school food over the past decade, was happy with the final standards. “These are the first-ever school meal standards for whole grains, trans fat, and sodium,” said Wootan. “The only disappointments I have are the ones Congress forced on the USDA — continuing to count pizza as a vegetable and allowing French fries to be served every day.”

So what does this all mean for America’s children?

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As a long-time school food reformer who has watched countless children consume high-calorie, low-nutrition school meals that I wouldn’t serve to my dog, I believe that this is a giant step forward. Just the fact that every student who purchases a school lunch will soon have to take a fruit and/or vegetable as a component of their meal is revolutionary. And in one fell swoop, the USDA has eliminated full fat and 2 percent milk from school meals — high-fat beverages that our increasingly overweight children don’t need. The USDA has provided a sample before and after elementary school menu.

Next on the horizon, thanks to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, is the USDA proposed rule for school a la carte or competitive foods, scheduled to be released in the next few months. If Congress doesn’t meddle again and the USDA proposes science-based standards for these foods sold outside the meal programs, our nation’s schools could become places where mostly healthy choices reign. What a refreshing thought — that our schools could actually model the nutrition habits that our government recommends in the Dietary Guidelines — rather than continually contradicting them and undermining parents.

But a la carte/competitive foods like sugary drinks, chips, ice cream, and candy are big business for Big Food and Beverage. So expect more deep-pocketed lobbying of Congress by their friends in the food industry in an attempt to maintain the status quo (e.g., their profits) at the expense of our children’s health.