To the great relief of almost everyone (except elementary school children content to subsist on potato chips and mozzarella sticks), the USDA released its new nutrition standards for school lunches this week. Announced by Michelle Obama and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, the new rules call for a greater quantity and range of fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, milk to be 1 percent or less, all flavored milks to be nonfat, and a reduction in the levels of sodium, saturated fat, and trans fat.
The simplicity of the new rules—the first changes to school lunch in 15 years—belies just how hard it was to get them implemented. Last year, under pressure from the potato and frozen pizza industries, Congress blocked parts of the USDA’s original proposal that limited starchy vegetables to twice a week and set a minimum for the amount of tomato sauce smeared on a pizza that could be considered a vegetable serving. Thus, pizza is now a vegetable, a classification that, if nothing else, would have made Ronald Reagan happy.
Still, nutritionists like Marion Nestle are praising the new standards, although the National Potato Council is grousing that the USDA “still considers the potato a second-class vegetable.” And although passing a bill through Congress is about as effortless and pleasurable as passing a kidney stone, perhaps the greater challenge will be getting kids to eat healthier school lunches. One education reporter has already predicted that while kids will probably eat a turkey and cheese sub on whole wheat, they’re just as likely to trash the green pepper strips, jicama, and cantaloupe wedges that accompany it. If that proves to be the case, it could be a boon for the likes of Mrs. Seinfeld, who knows that underneath the spaghetti and meatballs, there’s gold hidden along with the kale.