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Saturday, April 7, 2007 - Page updated at 02:01 AM

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USDA wants school menus to follow dietary guidelines

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — As part of a sweeping effort to help improve nutrition for schoolchildren and fight childhood obesity, the Agriculture Department is proposing for the first time to require schools to bring cafeteria menus into compliance with the latest U.S. dietary guidelines.

While the department limits the sale of soda and some junk foods in school cafeterias, it has not required schools to implement the 2005 Dietary Guidelines that call for increased consumption of whole grains, fruit and vegetables.

Nor does it regulate vending machines, à la carte menus or other food and beverages sold in schools outside of the cafeteria, although a bill introduced by Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, seeks to do that.

"We are proposing very significant increases in fruit and vegetables," USDA Secretary Mike Johanns said Thursday.

Each year, the USDA provides 9 million breakfasts and 30 million lunches to students. Nearly 60 percent are served free or at a reduced price.

The USDA plan is one of a handful of nutrition initiatives in the agency's proposed 2007 Farm Bill. They include changing the name and easing some eligibility requirements for the Food Stamp Program that serves some 26 million low-income citizens and the elderly. Also included are proposals for nutrition education, with a five-year, $100 million competitive grant program for combating obesity.

The USDA is proposing to spend $6 million to provide guidance and technical assistance to school food professionals to bring school meals in line with the latest guidelines.

"This is the first time that the USDA and Congress have addressed the nutrition standards for school meals in a while," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer-advocacy group. "They should've done this the day that the 2005 Dietary Guidelines were issued ... but they move at such a glacial pace that here it is a year and a half later and the proposed regulations have not even come out."

The 2005 update made some of the biggest changes in recent years in urging greater consumption of whole grains, fruit and vegetables and nonfat dairy products, such as skim milk.

Included in the Farm Bill are several initiatives to increase schoolchildren's consumption of fruits and vegetables.

The USDA proposes to spend $500 million in new, mandatory funding during the next 10 years to purchase additional fresh fruit and vegetables in school lunch-and-breakfast programs. The department also wants to shift $2.75 billion in the next 10 years to increase purchases of fruits and vegetables through its commodity programs, a move some said has little chance of success given the strong political forces likely to oppose such a change.

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