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_ 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.

Some school groups have criticized efforts to make meals healthier, saying it will be hard for already-stretched schools to pay for the new requirements. Some conservatives, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, have charged that telling children what to eat is a case of government overreach.

Vilsack says he understands the new standards may pose some challenges for school districts, but he believes they are necessary. He compares obesity and related diseases like diabetes to a truck barreling toward a child, and the new guidelines are like a parent teaching that child to look both ways before he or she crosses the street.

“You want your kid to be able to walk across the street without getting hit,” he says.

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 Agriculture Department also is planning to release new dietary guidelines for the general public, possibly as soon as this month. Those guidelines, revised every five years, are similarly expected to encourage less sodium consumption and more grains, fruits and vegetables.