USDA aims to make school meals more tasty

Kevin Concannon

Kevin Concannon

ALBANY — As students across the country start a new school year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is highlighting a number of efforts to promote a healthy and productive learning environment.

USDA programs impact students across the country and support the Obama Administration’s efforts to improve rural education opportunities, help students grow up healthy and strong, and maintain American competitiveness in the coming years.

Much of the USDA’s focus has been on serving healthier school meals to students. In February 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama introduced Let’s Move!, incorporating the Healthier US School Challenge into her campaign to raise a healthier generation of kids.

The introduction of whole grain bread products and low-fat milk among other dietary changes, however, has not been a seamless transition. Last month a group of elementary school students in Kentucky complained that their school meals “taste like vomit.”

The USDA is aware of the problem.

“We want to serve healthy school meals, but it doesn’t help anybody if the kids won’t consume the meals,” Kevin Concannon, Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, said Thursday via phone from Washington. “We’ve discovered with the younger children it’s best to make a gradual transition and work our way into it. Palets become adjusted more easily. I’m confident we can do it.”

USDA is also continuing its effort to promote healthy improvements to school meals through implementation of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. The first phase of the updated School Breakfast Program is being implemented this year. These updates will provide students with more whole grains, milk with a lower fat content, and right-sized meals appropriate for the calorie needs of students of different ages - all while ensuring that school officials have the menu flexibility they need.

Additionally, beginning with the 2014-2015 school year, fruit offerings will be increased at breakfast and snacks offered to students will include healthier options while limiting less nutritious food.

“As our youngsters head back to school, USDA is committed to their future,” said USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. “We are taking new steps to expand rural education opportunities, ensure healthy and safe food for young people, and giving parents and teachers the tools and information they need to help our kids grow up ready to lead the world.”

Concannon said the USDA is also helping inside the classroom. USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) and the American Statistical Association (ASA) are preparing to present a new Census at School Food Preference Survey lesson plan and activities for students in grades 5 to 8.

This new curriculum teaches statistical and agricultural literacy to children through common core standards in Mathematics, Language Arts, Nutrition, Social Studies, and Family Consumer Sciences.