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New school lunch guidelines set

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama greets students at the cafeteria of Parklawn Elementary School January 25, 2012 in Alexandria, Va. The first lady visited the school to speak to students and parents about the USDA's new nutrition standards for school lunches.

Adriene Hill: The USDA just announced an overhaul of school lunch guidelines. It's the first rewrite in 15 years. And while it won't get rid of the french fries and chocolate milk of my childhood, it will limit fat and sodium, add vegetables and fruits, and may cost a bit more.

For more we go to Margo Wootan. She's the director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Good morning.

Margo Wootan: Good morning.

Hill: You've been pushing for new school lunch guidelines for a while. What do you think of these new ones?

Wootan: They're really the best standards ever. They'll double fruits and vegetables; set the first ever standards for sodium and trans fat and whole-grain; better address calories to make sure that they address concerns about obesity; and ensure that all the milk is low-fat or fat-free.

Hill: Now any disappointments? I understand pizza still counts as a vegetable.

Wootan: My only disappointments are not USDA's fault. Congress stepped in and prevented USDA from limiting the amount of French fries in school meals, and from no longer counting pizza as a vegetable. But still, even when there is pizza, the pizza under new standards will have to have a whole-grain crust, be lower in sodium, and come with an additional vegetable since the amount of vegetables are going to be doubled.

Hill: This discussion over healthier lunches is also an economic discussion. Healthier food can be more expensive, and some school districts have raised concern in this time of cash-strapped budgets. What do you make of those concerns?

Wootan: USDA's looked at the costs very carefully, and they heard those concerns. And they actually changed the standards a bit and phased some parts of them in to bring down the costs. Also, those costs won't be borne by local school districts or states. The USDA will pay for most of it; there'll be increase in lunch reimbursement. And then there are a couple of other provisions from the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which will make sure that these changes are paid for.

Hill: What about kids, are they going to end up paying more?

Wootan: Some higher income kids and their families will pay more for school lunches if the school is not charging enough to really cover what it costs them to make that meal. But no more than a nickel per school lunch, which will mean no more than $9 for a child each year.

Hill: Now I'm going to ask one personal question, and that is: you mentioned French fries, but what about my elementary school favorite, tater-tots. Did they make the cut, or no more?

Wootan: French fries, tater-tots, they're all the same. It's not that potatoes can't be healthy. The problem is that they're often fried, if not in the school, you know, even when the school is baking them, usually they're already fried in a factory before they're frozen. And also, kids eat too many potatoes, and they need to eat green beans, carrots, and a whole range of vegetables to get all the vitamins and minerals that they need.

Hill: Margo Wootan is the director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Thanks Margo.

Wootan: Thank you.

About the author

Adriene Hill is a senior multimedia reporter for the Marketplace sustainability desk, with a focus on consumer issues and the individual relationship to sustainability and the environment.
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