USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan on Friday announced new grants to help schools transition into new school lunch requirements, which took effect at the beginning of this school year.
The grants will help schools meet the new school meal requirements, encourage HealthierUS School Challenge participation, support students' nutritious choices by structuring the cafeteria environment in a way that encourages the selection of healthy foods, and promote healthier environments to align with the Local Wellness Policy requirements established in the Act.
Merrigan said the grants are important because they will provide nutrition education resources and technical assistance to foodservice professionals. She added that the grants, funded in support of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, will ensure that the new requirements are met.
Despite some pushback regarding protein limits and calorie counts, Merrigan said the new regulations are in place to make meals more wholesome and encourage healthy eating habits.
"School meals are funded by taxpayers. They should be the healthiest meals possible, and not contribute to health issues or drive up costs," Merrigan said.
Merrigan said children consume as many as half of their total calorie needs in school, and the standards aim to provide more healthful choices and are designed to reduce the risk of diabetes and high blood pressure.
An estimated 32 million students are benefiting from the new meal standards, which are taking a different approach to food selection and distribution than in years past.
Deputy Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Janey Thornton said the new program included an offer vs. serve option, which allows children to take smaller amounts of food instead of wasting larger portions.
Thornton said she had already seen benefits to the program, and children were also learning more about different fruits and vegetables.
A "little first-grader said he 'loved those little trees.' Broccoli is what he liked," Thornton said. "I think we're finding that it's not necessarily that kids don't like the fruits and vegetables, but many of them aren't exposed to them like you would think they would be."
Quality of the food is important, but so is learning healthy habits and meeting all needs.
"What we are trying to do is teach children not just what to eat, but portion sizes," Thornton said. She added that this has been a challenge, but said it was necessary to work with the school to determine who needed additional calories and when, such as student athletes.
The funding announced to benefit the lunch program will be made available for the period of Sept. 30, 2012 through Sept. 30, 2014, to assist State agencies in achieving the Team Nutrition goals. States must apply Team Nutrition's three behavior-focused strategies:
• Provide training and technical assistance to child nutrition foodservice professionals to enable them to prepare and serve nutritious meals that appeal to children.
• Provide fun and interactive nutrition education for children, teachers, parents, and other caregivers.
• Build school and community support for creating healthy school environments that are conducive to healthy eating and physical activity.
USDA is awarding approximately $5.2 million in 18 States and one territory:
Alaska, $242,847.00; Arizona, $319,772.00; Florida, $311,500.00; Guam, $330,344.00; Hawaii, $233,016.00; Idaho, $245,120.00; Illinois, $50,000.00; Iowa, $348,335.00; Kansas, $349,715.00; Michigan, $333,420.00; Missouri, $342,609.00; Montana, $349,924.00; New Jersey, $324,151.00; North Dakota, $247,580.00; Ohio, $345,849.00; Utah, $41,540.00; Washington, $222,508.00; Washington, $46,772.00; West Virginia, $346,515.00; and Wisconsin, $203,056.00.