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New school lunch rules both cheered and chided

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Vivan Perez prepares bowls of fruit for lunch in the kitchen at Kepner Middle School in Denver on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012.

Vivan Perez prepares bowls of fruit for lunch in the kitchen at Kepner Middle School in Denver on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012.

Associated Press

When the new federal regulations for America's school lunches were officially declared Jan. 25, they were mostly met with approval and applause. But less than a week after the announcement, critics are already emerging.

Some are concerned the regulations disregard some potentially serious unintended consequences, like reducing the popularity of milk, the staple beverage of an American childhood.

Others, meanwhile, are upset that since the Congressional squabble in November, pizza stills counts as a vegetable at lunchtime.

The New York Times reported the new rules are the first changes to the program, which feeds 32 million school children daily, in 15 years.

According to the Times, the USDA is now requiring schools which provide federally-funded school lunch to double the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables served and to provide only whole grains.

Another significant change, reported the Kansas City Star, is the restriction on dairy products: when the rules go into effect, only low-fat or fat-free options will be allowed.

The new regulations will also gradually reduce the amount of trans fats, saturated fats and sodium at lunchtime. And portion sizes will be regulated based on age, according to the Rural Blog of the University of Kentucky.

The rules from the USDA, which have been championed by First Lady Michelle Obama, are the "best ever," the LA Times blog Nation Now reported Margo Wootan saying. Wootan is the director of nutrition policy at the D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The sentiment was echoed by Nancy Huehnergarth, co-founder and executive director of the New York State Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance (NYSHEPA).

"As a long-time school food reformer who has watched countless children consume high-calorie, low-nutrition school meals that I wouldn't serve to my dog," wrote Huehnergarth in a blog post on the website Grist, "I believe that this is a giant step forward."

The new rules come amid reports showing that one-third of American children are obese. The move toward healthier options in schools has been widely supported. But some aspects of the policy have raised eyebrows within the food and health industries.

The International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), reported Education News, is concerned about the new milk restrictions, which eliminate not just 2-percent and whole milk, but also any "flavored" milk that is not fat-free. The absence of chocolate milk, they fear, could make overall milk popularity plummet.

"Eliminating low-fat flavored milks, which kids like, and still allowing a wide variety of a la carte beverages like juice beverages, sports drinks and soda at schools will reduce milk consumption," said IDFA President and CEO Connie Tipton, according to Education News.

Others are concerned that programs that aim to combat childhood obesity could send kids in the opposite direction. C.S. Mott Children's Hospital of Michigan released a report this week suggesting that some of these efforts could potentially result in eating disorders, according to Education News.

"We have to be really careful that we're not putting things out there, particularly to younger kids, that might be misinterpreted, not be given appropriate supervision, and being done in ways that kids can, or some kids, can go off in dangerous directions and have bad outcomes," Education News quoted David Rosen as commenting. Rosen is a professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry at the University of Michigan.

But other critics are simply concerned that the new regulations don't go far enough. Under the program, half a cup of tomato sauce on pizza still counts as a vegetable, which the USDA had hoped to increase to at least one cup.

And potato servings are still unrestricted, despite the USDA's effort last year to limit them, hoping to curb access to French fries in schools. Both efforts were blocked in Congress late last year. Nation Now reported that Wootan was "less enthusiastic about … the things 'Congress meddled with.'"

EMAIL: lmarostica@desnews.com