New guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture about what can—and can’t—be in school lunches take effect as students return to class this fall.  The guidelines were initially proposed last January by first lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

In an effort to get school children to eat more healthfully, the new guidelines call for more whole grains and more produce.  Cafeterias are required to serve dark green, orange, or red vegetables at least once a week, and all students must select at least one fruit or one vegetable at each meal.

In addition, trans fats are completely banned from school lunches and meals are required to have less fat overall.  The new guidelines also put the first ever calorie and sodium limits on what can be served in schools.

And although these are all steps in the right direction, critics still point to some major nutritional loopholes.  Because of the tomato paste, pizza is still considered a vegetable, and cafeterias are still allowed to serve unlimited servings of potatoes—though many more servings will be baked, rather than fried. Schools can still serve flavored, sweetened milk, but now it must be fat-free.

The new guidelines also come with a six-cent-per-meal raise in money schools receive from the federal government, the first real increase in nearly 30 years.

According to Web MD, schools must:

  • Offer a minimum of 8 to 10 ounces of whole grains. No more than two desserts a week may be used to meet this minimum
  • Offer at least a half cup per week of dark green vegetables
  • Offer at least 3/4 cup red/orange vegetables for grades K-8, and at least 1 1/4 cups in grades 9-12
  • Offer at least a half cup of beans or peas
  • Offer at least a half cup of starchy vegetables. There is no limit on starchy vegetables
  • Offer at least a half cup of fruit in grades K-8 and at least 1 cup of fruit in grades 9-12
  • Offer at least a half cup (grades K-8) or 3/4 cup (grades 9-12) of “other vegetables,” which may be met with any of the above vegetables except for starchy vegetables
  • Allow tofu as a meat alternative
  • Get federal reimbursement only if they offer at least a half cup of a fruit or vegetable
  • Contain no fewer than 550 calories for grades K-5, 600 calories for grades 6-8, and 750 calories for grades 9-12
  • Contain no more than 650 calories for grades K-5, 700 calories for grades 6-8, and 850 calories for grades 9-12
  • Obtain less than 10% of total calories from saturated fat
  • Have zero trans fat
  • Limit salt according to grade level
  • Offer at least a cup of low-fat or skim milk

Schools will have time to phase in these new rules, as well as new guidelines for student breakfasts and vending machines.

image by john.murden