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Rules seek healthier school meals

School cafeterias would have to hold the fries -- and serve kids more whole grains, fruit and vegetables -- under the government's plans for the first major nutritional overhaul of students' meals in 15 years.

The Agriculture Department proposal announced Thursday applies to lunches subsidized by the federal government. The guidelines would require schools to cut sodium in those meals by more than half, use more whole grains and serve low-fat milk. They also would limit kids to only one cup of starchy vegetables a week, so schools couldn't offer french fries every day.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the new standards could affect more than 32 million children and are crucial because kids can consume as much as half of their daily calories in school.

"The United States is facing an obesity epidemic, and the crisis of poor diets threatens the future of our children and our nation," Vilsack said Thursday.

While many schools are improving meals already, others are still serving children meals high in fat, salt and calories. The new guidelines are based on 2009 recommendations by the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences.

The announcement comes just a few weeks after President Obama signed into law a child nutrition bill that will help schools pay for the healthier foods, which often are more expensive.

The subsidized meals that would fall under the guidelines proposed this week 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 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.

The announcement is a proposal, and it could be several years before the rules require schools to make changes.

The new USDA guidelines would do the following:

*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 more than half.

*Ban most trans fats.

*Require more servings of fruit 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 both a grain and a protein.

Vilsack said the reduction in sodium will be gradual so schoolchildren can get used to less-salty foods.

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