WASHINGTON - Schoolchildren's favorite lunch - the ubiquitous frozen pizza - is about to get healthier.
First lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack are expected to announce Wednesday that most school meals, including pizza, will have less sodium, more whole grains and more fruits and vegetables as sides. The popular pizzas will still be on school lunch lines but made with healthier ingredients.
Mrs. Obama and Vilsack were making the announcement at an elementary school in Alexandria, Va., with celebrity chef Rachael Ray.
The new rules, the first major nutritional overhaul of school meals in 15 years, won't be as aggressive as the Obama administration had hoped.the Agriculture Department from making some of the changes the department had sought, including limiting french fries and pizzas.
A bill passed in November would require USDA to allow tomato paste on pizzas to be counted as a vegetable, as it is now. The initial draft of the department's guidelines, released a year ago, would have prevented that. Congress also blocked USDA from limiting servings of potatoes to two servings a week. The final rule to be announced Wednesday will have to incorporate those directions from Congress.
The congressional changes had been requested by potato growers and food companies that produce frozen pizzas for schools, among others in the food industry. Conservatives in Congress called the guidelines an overreach, saying the government shouldn't be telling children what to eat. School districts had also objected to some of the requirements, saying they go too far and would cost too much.
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The new guidelines would apply to lunches subsidized by the federal government, and a child nutrition bill signed by President Barack Obama in 2010 would help school districts pay for some of the increased costs. Some of the changes could take place as soon as the next school year, while others would be phased in over time.
The guidelines are also expected to limit the total number of calories in an individual meal and require that milk be low in fat. Flavored milks would have to be nonfat.
While many schools are improving meals already, others are still serving children meals high in fat, salt and calories. The guidelines are designed to combat growing childhood obesity and are based on 2009 recommendations by the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences.
The subsidized meals that would fall under the guidelines are served as free and low-cost meals to low-income children and long have been subject to government nutrition standards. The 2010 law for the first time will extend nutrition standards to other foods sold in schools that aren't subsidized by the federal government, including "a la carte" foods on the lunch line and snacks in vending machines.
Those standards, while expected to be similar, will be written separately and have not yet been proposed by USDA.