Obama Pushes Salad in Schools at $3.2 Billion Cost to States

Healthier School Meals Required by U.S. Raise Cost Concerns
Pizza slices and french fries are served during lunch at Everglades High School on November 18, 2011 in Miramar, Florida. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

An overhaul of U.S. school meal standards that replaces breaded patties and canned fruit with fresh tomatoes and chef salad will cost $3.2 billion over five years, less than half of what was initially proposed by the Obama administration.

The first major change to school meals in 15 years released today departs from a 2011 draft by dropping a daily requirement for meat or a meat alternative with breakfast and requiring more fruit and food rich in whole grains. Local governments balked at the initial cost and companies including ConAgra Foods Inc., maker of Hunt’s tomato products, lobbied to block its limits on potatoes and tomato paste in pizza.

“As parents, we try to prepare decent meals, limit how much junk food our kids eat and ensure they have a reasonably balanced diet,” said first lady Michelle Obama in a statement. “When you’re putting in all that effort, the last thing we want is for our hard work to be undone each day in the school cafeteria.”

Municipalities and states may see added costs from buying more fruit and whole grains and preparing meals. A bill introduced this month in Arizona would change state law so schools can drop out of the national lunch program rather than follow the new rules, which take effect July 1.

“There is no escaping the argument that this is a healthier menu for kids,” Arizona State Senator Rich Crandall, a Republican representing Mesa, said in a telephone interview. “The problem is they are mandating these new standards with no new funding to back it up.”

Higher Reimbursement Rate

Costs will be offset in part by a reimbursement increase of 6 cents for meals -- the first such increase in 30 years, said Kevin Concannon, the U.S. agriculture undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, in a call with reporters. Higher costs for a la carte items sold in cafeterias also will boost school revenue, he said.

President Barack Obama sought the changes because a third of U.S. children are overweight or obese, contributing to $3 billion in annual medical costs, according to administration. The Department of Agriculture is establishing minimum and maximum calorie levels based on age and reducing the sodium content in meals. A draft proposal from June would have cost $6.8 billion over five years.

Nutritional Advance

The new standards “are one of the most important advances in nutrition in decades,” said Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group. “They’re much needed, given high childhood obesity rates and the poor state of our children’s diets.”

The rule means children will have twice the amount of fruits and vegetables on their lunch trays, the center said in a press release.

The regulations were promoted today by Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at a lunch event with elementary students in Alexandria, Virginia. School employees and celebrity cook Rachael Ray served helpings of a meal that meets the new standards, according to the USDA. Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign seeks to cut childhood obesity.

Under the rule, schools won’t have limits on starchy vegetables such as potatoes at lunch. They will have to offer all vegetable types -- including dark greens, red and orange vegetables, beans and peas -- at lunch during the week.

Whole Grains

After a phase-in period, schools starting in the 2014-2015 term will have to offer only whole-grain rich products. Schools may also use tofu as an alternative to meat, according to the rule.

Minimum calories requirements for some age groups will be reduced by as much as 225 calories per lunch, according to the rule.

The American Frozen Food Institute, a McLean, Virginia-based trade organization that represents 90 percent of U.S. frozen-food production, praised the rule.

“USDA’s new standards encompass a number of important changes to school meals, including nearly doubling the amount of fruits and vegetables served to school children,” the institute said today in a statement.

Some municipalities have already adjusted school menus in a bid to reduce obesity in their communities.

New York Obesity

The obesity rate in grade-school children in New York dropped 5.5 percent from 2006 to 2010, as the city started programs to boost physical activity and encourage healthier eating habits. City officials attributed the drop seen in the study of 947,765 students to programs that eliminated deep-fried food and sugary sodas in cafeteria, limited junk food in fund raisers and added low-fat milk and salad bars to school menus.

Congress in November halted some of the changes the administration has sought to mandate nationwide, including reducing the amount of potatoes and increasing the amount of tomato paste that qualifies as a vegetable.

The USDA had wanted to change the amount of tomato paste that earns a vegetable credit from one-eighth of a cup to a half cup, said Corey Henry, a spokesman for the frozen food trade group.

“Tomato paste is incredibly nutrient dense, which is why USDA’s current standard works,” Henry said in an e-mail.

ConAgra, Schwan

ConAgra, based in Omaha, Nebraska, and Schwan Food Co. were among companies that had argued against some requirements in the initial proposal, which would have potentially hurt their business. Schwan’s Food Service Inc. of Marshall, Minnesota, holds 70 percent of the market share on pizza in the $9.5 billion school food-service industry.

U.S. schools served 2.9 billion free lunches as part of the National School Lunch Program in fiscal 2010, about 500 million reduced price lunches and 1.8 billion full-price lunches, according to the draft rule.

The food-service industry was also seeking a more gradual reduction in sodium than the earlier USDA proposal.

Sixty percent of district-school food-service directors expected costs to increase and more food to be wasted under the proposal, according to a 2011 survey by the Washington-based National Potato Council on the draft proposal.

“Food service directors have been really concerned they’ll be required to load down the kids plates with fruits and vegetables they won’t eat, which will increase costs,” Mark Szymanski, spokesman for the council, which focuses on public policy and increasing potato consumption, said in an interview.

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