ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) - The first major nutritional overhaul of school meals in more than 15 years means most offerings - including the always popular pizza - will come with less sodium, more whole grains and a wider selection of fruits and vegetables on the side.
First lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the new guidelines during a visit Wednesday with elementary students. Obama, also joined by celebrity chef Rachael Ray, said youngsters will learn better if they don't have growling stomachs at school.
"As parents, we try to prepare decent meals, limit how much junk food our kids eat, and ensure they have a reasonably balanced diet," Obama said. "And when we'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."
After the announcement, the three went through the line with students and ate turkey tacos with brown rice, black bean and corn salad and fruit - all Ray's recipes - with the children in the Parklawn Elementary lunchroom.
Under the new rules, pizza won't disappear from lunch lines, but will be made with healthier ingredients. Entire meals will have calorie caps for the first time and most trans fats will be banned. Sodium will gradually decrease over a 10 year period. Milk will have to be low in fat and flavored milks will have to be nonfat.
Despite the improvements, the new rules aren't as aggressive as the Obama administration had hoped. Congress last year blocked the Agriculture Department from making some of the desired changes, including limiting french fries and pizzas.
A bill passed in November would require the department to allow tomato paste on pizzas to be counted as a vegetable, as it is now. The initial draft of the department's guidelines, released a year ago, would have prevented that. Congress also blocked the department from limiting servings of potatoes to two servings a week. The final rules have incorporated those directions from Congress.
Among those who had sought the changes were potato growers and food companies that produce frozen pizzas for schools. Conservatives in Congress called the guidelines an overreach and said the government shouldn't tell children what to eat. School districts also objected to some of the requirements, saying they go too far and would cost too much.
The guidelines apply to lunches subsidized by the federal government. A child nutrition bill signed by President Barack Obama in 2010 will help school districts pay for some of the increased costs. Some of the changes will take place as soon as this September; others will be phased in over time.
USDA school lunch rules at www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/Governance/Legislation/nutritionstandards.htm