USDA: Lunches From Home Still OK, But Feds Expect Growing Participation in ‘National School Lunch Program’

January 25, 2012 - 8:59 PM
First Lady in school lunch line

First Lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack joined children in the lunch line at Parklawn Elementary School in Alexandria, Va. on Wednesday, January 25, 2012. On the menu were ground turkey tacos, Mexican brown rice and black bean and corn salad accompanied by mixed fruit. (Photo: USDA/Bob Nichols)

(CNSNews.com) – New federal regulations on school lunches do not preclude parents from sending food with their children from home, but a senior U.S. Department of Agriculture official said Wednesday he expects participation in the national program to grow.

“I am certainly optimistic that, over time, more children will participate in the national school lunch program as we promote and educate total improved food environment,” undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services Kevin Concannon said during a conference call with reporters.

He was responding to queries from CNSNews.com about homemade lunches and government oversight of what children eat while at school.

Concannon said parents “played a major role in promoting an improved food environment” during the process of finalizing the 280-page Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, announced Wednesday.

Parents are still in charge of lunches made at home, he said.

“So the meals come from home, we certainly are very supportive of parents,” Concannon said. “Those are judgments that parents will make at home.”

Concannon and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack joined First Lady Michelle Obama and celebrity cook Rachael Ray at Parklawn Elementary in Alexandria, Va., to make the announcement about the new regulation and to dine with students in the cafeteria.

“When we send our kids to school, we have a right to expect that they won’t be eating the kind of fatty, salty, sugary foods that we're trying to keep from them when they’re at home,” Obama said. “We have a right to expect that the food they get at school is the same kind of food that we want to serve at our own kitchen tables.”

For some students, she said, “school meals can be their main – or only – source of nutrition for the entire day.”

Obama also said children were more easily influenced than adults.

“That’s the beauty of children -- they change,” the first lady said. “They change much easier than we do, and when we give them an opportunity to try something new, they embrace it oftentimes, and they come back for more.”

A USDA press release on the new regulations said they would include:

--Ensuring that students are offered both fruits and vegetables every day of the week;

--Substantially increasing offerings of whole grain-rich foods;

--Offering only fat-free or low-fat milk varieties;

--Limiting calories based on the age of children being served to ensure proper portion size; and

--Increasing the focus on reducing the amounts of saturated fat, trans fats and sodium.

A sample menu was also made available.

A CNSNews.com question about how authorities would monitor “plate waste” – the extent to which children throw away their food rather than eat it – was not answered directly. But Sam Kass, assistant White House chef, said he thought officials had addressed that issue.

“We know that if it’s not delicious, that kids aren’t going to eat it,” he said.

Transcript of Q. and A. with Concannon:

CNSNews.com: Where do school lunches brought from home play into to this as far as what the kids are eating? Is there going to be any monitoring, advice or education done on that part?

Concannon: Parents, of course, are the folks we rely upon in that regard. Many, many schools, as I’ve noted in my visits across the country, are now publishing the school menus on the Internet so that parents can see what schools are promoting. You know, the improvements that we are making here, while they come from a scientific panel as well, they have been in the Healthier U.S. Schools across the country – more than 2,000 – parents have played a major role in promoting an improved food environment. So the meals come from home, we certainly are very supportive of parents. Those are judgments that parents will make at home.

I am certainly optimistic that, over time, more children will participate in the national school lunch program as we promote and educate total improved food environment.