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New, lower-calorie school lunch menus receiving mixed reviews
Illinois Correspondent

WASHINGTON, D.C. — New public school lunch rules designed to give students healthier midday food options are receiving mixed reviews nationally. Some students, nutritionists and the USDA stand by the new menu requirements, while other students, parents and GOP lawmakers question the need for government oversight.

And the calorie caps that are the linchpin of the new rules aren’t winning a plethora of fans, particularly student athletes who need to consume thousands of calories a day to stay energized.

Congress approved the new rules under the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which affect the National School Lunch Program overseen by the USDA. Roughly 31.8 million school kids from kindergarten through 12th grade used the program in 2011, according to the USDA.

The new rules cap calories for three different grade levels: No school may serve a lunch of more than 850 calories for grades 9-12; 700 calories for grades 6-8; and 650 calories for students in K-5. In addition, grain products such as bread, pasta, rice and tortillas must be at least 51 percent whole grain. The USDA rules also cap the amount of bread available in any given week.

At least 1/2 cup of fruits or vegetables must be included in each lunch, plus only low- or nonfat milk can be served. Chocolate milk is allowed, as long it’s low- or nonfat. The new menu guidelines took effect July 1, so this is the first school lunch year under the new rules. Various levels of protests already have occurred at several schools across the country.

About 600 of the school’s 850 students at Mukwonago High School in southern Wisconsin boycotted lunch one day last week, saying the meal portions are too stingy and options aren’t as varied and appetizing.

Senior Nick Blohm said he burns up to 3,000 calories a day, particularly with daily football practice, and he told The Associated Press he finds himself tired midway through school days now with a different lunch menu. “A lot of us are starting to get hungry even before the practice begins,” the student said. “Our metabolisms are all sped up.”

Last week U.S. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) introduced his “No Hungry Kids Act,” legislation that would eliminate the new rules, which are supported by First Lady Michelle Obama – and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack’s wife, Christie, who is running against King for his Congressional seat.

“For the first time in history, the USDA has set a calorie limit on school lunches,” King said. “The goal of the school lunch program was, and is, to ensure students receive enough nutrition to be healthy and to learn.”

King consistently has opposed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act; he voted against the measure on Dec. 2, 2010, when it passed the House on a largely partisan vote of 264-157. Democrats supported it 247-4, while GOP lawmakers were 153-17 opposed to it.

At the time of its passage, the legislation was not considered to have a significant impact on the ag industry, although some believed it could help growers sell more locally to schools and other institutions. The federal government reimburses school districts $2.86 for free meals, $2.46 for reduced-price and 27 cents for full-priced meals.

The reimbursement rates are the same for every school nationwide. Roughly two-thirds of all students who used the program in 2011 received free or reduced-priced meals based on family income levels. USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said last week the agency is releasing grant money to several states to help implement elements of the 2010 law, which included $4.5 billion in funding over 10 years.

Merrigan said the grants – totaling $5.2 million for 18 states including Kentucky, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri and Ohio – are important because they will provide nutrition education resources and technical aid to foodservice professionals in schools. Despite some criticism about calorie counts, she said the new regulations are in place to make meals more wholesome and to 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.

King’s legislation won’t be considered until sometime after the November elections, as Congress began its fall adjournment last week.