- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Obama administration ratcheted up its war on childhood obesity Thursday with a new set of federal rules that would limit the number of calories allowed in government-subsidized school meals, banning most trans fats while increasing the amounts of whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

The proposals, issued by the Agriculture Department, represent the first major revamping of school lunch guidelines in 15 years. The rules would apply to all full and partially subsidized meals and could affect 32 million children.

Advocates say overhauling the fare in the nation’s school lunches is essential in combating childhood obesity because many children consume as much as half their daily calories while at school. But some conservative critics, led by Sarah Palin, have decried federal efforts to mandate diets and regulate school bake sales and vending machines as undue government intervention.

Some local school officials also have raised questions about the cost of implementing the new rules, with many of the proposed menu options more expensive to obtain and prepare than pizza and Tater Tots.

“The United States is facing an obesity epidemic, and the crisis of poor diets threatens the future of our children - and our nation,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, noting that the nation faces a heavy bill from poor diets in long-term health problems.

The guidelines are a response to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which President Obama signed into law a month ago. The $4.5 billion measure expands the number of students eligible for school lunch programs and increases the federal subsidy by 6 cents per meal.

In addition to establishing calorie limits for the first time, the proposed rules call for reducing sodium by more than half over 10 years, boosting amounts of whole grains so that most grains served eventually will be whole grains, and banning most trans fats. Meals would include more servings of fruits and vegetables, and all milk would be low-fat or nonfat.

According to the government, nearly 32 percent of U.S. children between the ages of 6 and 19 are considered overweight or obese. First lady Michelle Obama has made the war on obesity her signature issue with a national campaign dubbed Let’s Move! aimed at getting children to exercise.

“As the obesity epidemic places increasing threats on the long-term health and longevity of our children — as well as an unsustainable economic toll to our nation — there is no time to waste in implementing these landmark provisions,” said Penny Lee, executive director of the Campaign to End Obesity.

She added that the proposed guidelines, which do not have to be approved by Congress, “signal that when children return for their first day back to school this September, they stand a strong chance of starting out with the proper nutrition they need to learn and grow.”

In spite of health concerns, conservative activists balk at the prospect of the federal government weaning students off long-standing school lunch staples such as nachos, fries and cookies - and taking the decision for children’s diets out of the hands of their parents.

Mrs. Palin in particular has been very public in criticizing both national efforts and similar local initiatives, such as a rumored Pennsylvania proposal to limit the amount of sweets at classroom parties and birthday celebrations. In November, the former Republican vice-presidential candidate brought 200 sugar cookies to a county school fundraiser in protest.

“Who should be making the decisions what you eat, school choice and everything else? Should it be government or should it be the parents? It should be the parents,” she said in a speech at a local private school.

A local paper that reported news of the state education board’s consideration of such a proposal later retracted its report, saying Pennsylvania officials were mulling regulations that would encourage, not require, schools to serve healthier foods.

The Agriculture Department guidelines extend only to subsidized meals that are served either free or at greatly reduced cost to low-income children. The new law also requires the government to draft separate nutrition standards for foods that aren’t subsidized, including vending-machine snacks and other a la carte items.

The proposals are based on recommendations released by the Institute of Medicine in October 2009. The guidelines are open for public comment through April 13.

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