USDA unveils new rules for healthier school lunches

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In the first major change in student meal requirements in more than a decade, school lunches would get healthier under new rules proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Schools would have to cut sodium by more than half — plus serve more whole grains, more fruits and vegetables, and either low-fat or fat-free milk. Students would receive only one cup of starchy vegetables per week — which means no more daily French fries.

So far, it’s only a proposal. If approved, it could be years before schools would be required to follow all the new guidelines.

Rosemary Dederichs, director of food service in the Minneapolis Public Schools, supports the new rules. She also considers them necessary, given the obesity rates and other health challenges facing America’s children.

Dederichs, who sat on the committee at the Institute of Medicine that developed the new guidelines, said schools have a unique opportunity to expose kids to healthy eating.

Minneapolis Public Schools have already started doing so by increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables on school menus and eliminating all fried food.

The new guidelines apply to lunches subsidized by the federal government. But I wonder how they affect children who struggle with hunger. What will they mean for kids who consume a large percentage of their daily calories at school, and for those whose parents can’t always afford to buy fresh produce?

Dederichs doesn’t differentiate between children from low-income households and other students.

“It doesn’t make any difference to me,” she said. “We serve the same nutritious meals to everybody because that enhances their learning.”

Still, I’ll be looking closely at school lunch and breakfast programs over the next year, as I dig into issues of hunger in Minnesota.

For some kids, those meals are one of the most consistent places to get food, nutritious or otherwise.

Julie Siple reports on hunger and related issues for Minnesota Public Radio News. MPR is a partner in the Hunger-Free Minnesota project, which helps fund her reporting.

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