FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) – Nearly three decades after the USDA proposed that school lunch programs count ketchup as a vegetable (the policy was never implemented) the consequences of choices made by adults have become far too evident in American children eating in public school cafeterias.

According to the USDA, about a third of children 6 to 19 years old are overweight or obese, and the number of obese children has tripled in the past few decades.

“The United States is facing an obesity epidemic and the crisis of poor diets threatens the future of our children and our nation,” explained Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “If we don’t contain obesity in this country it’s going to eat us alive in terms of health care costs.”

The first major government attempt to overhaul student meals in 15 years includes dishing up more whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

If French fries are on your school menu everyday, there’s going to be a problem. The new guidelines limit kids to only one cup of starchy vegetables a week and schools would be required to cut sodium in meals by more than half, but they have 10 years to gradually bring the salt content down. Cafeterias would also use more whole grains and serve non-fat/low-fat milk.

«« Check out the before & after USDA comparison chart »»

According to experts, lunchtime is a great opportunity for children to get some of their daily dose of fruits and vegetables. School aged children need 1 ½ to 2 cups of fruit and 1 ½ to 3 cups of vegetables, depending on the age and gender of the child.

The Agriculture Department proposal applies to lunches subsidized by the federal government. The subsidized meals are served as free and low-cost meals to low-income children and long have been subject to government nutrition standards.

The new law for the first time will also 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.

Administrators with the Richardson Independent School District (RISD) say they have already implemented most of these standards. Ice cream is no longer offered on most campuses, instead the district offers non-fat frozen yogurt.

This school year the RISD has made a number of changes to it’s school menu. There are more fruits and vegetables offered and breads, buns and most pastas are made of whole grain. The district also serves hot dogs that are nitrate-free. Dietitians have come up with recipes that are low sodium, like the district’s taco meat, which incorporates a number of spices, but little salt.

“We have sweet potatoes,” explains Rose Ann Martin, the Director of Child Nutrition for the Richardson School District. “What school district offers sweet potatoes? We’ve done that three or four years ago.”

With many kids consuming as much as half of their daily calories in school and the new guidelines affecting more than 32 million American children, the new standards could have a far reaching impact.

The new USDA guidelines would:

Establish the first calorie limits for school meals.

Gradually reduce the amount of sodium in the meals over 10 years, with the eventual goal of reducing sodium by
than half.

Ban most trans fats.

Require more servings of fruits and vegetables.

Require all milk served to be low fat or nonfat, and require all flavored milks to be nonfat.

Incrementally increase the amount of whole grains required, eventually requiring most grains to be whole grains.

Improve school breakfasts by requiring schools to serve a grain and a protein, instead of one or the other.

But, eating healthier can be more expensive so federal officials are encouraging school districts to find creative ways to afford the new items on the menu.  They recommend school systems form co-ops with other businesses and look for bargains when they purchase food from vendors.

The Assistant Director of Child Nutrition for R.I.S.D., Alissa Gustof,  says that’s her job and vendors will work harder to supply healthier foods.

The proposed nutritional rules are based on the Institute of Medicine guidelines that were released in October 2009. But keep in mind, the new guidelines are an Agriculture Department proposal, and it could be several years before schools would be required to make changes.

As it stands, the public will have 90 days to submit comments to the USDA about the nutritional recommendations. The USDA will then evaluate the comments and make changes as needed. The final rules will likely be released in January 2012, making the new meal requirements official for the 2012-2013 school year.

«« Read the USDA press release on the school cafeteria guidelines announcement »»