School dinners in the United States may be forced to adhere to certain standards under a proposal being considered by the country’s agriculture department.
The move would be the first major nutritional overhaul of school meals in 15 years and would apply to lunches subsidised by the US government.
The guidelines would require schools to cut sodium in meals by more than a half, use only whole grains and serve reduced-fat milk. Children would also be limited to one cup of starchy vegetables per week – meaning schools would not be able to offer chips every day.
Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack said the new standards could affect more than 32 million children across the US and are crucial because children can consume as much as half of their daily calories at school.
“If we don’t contain obesity in this country, it’s going to eat us alive in terms of health care costs,” Mr Vilsack said.
The announcement comes just a few weeks after President Barack Obama signed into law a child nutrition bill that will help schools pay for the healthier foods, which often are more expensive.
That new law also will extend similar nutrition standards to foods sold in schools that are not subsidised by the government, including “a la carte” foods on the lunch line and snacks in vending machines.
Some school groups have criticised the moves towards healthy meals, saying it will be hard for already-stretched schools to pay for the new requirements. Some conservatives, including Republican former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, have claimed that telling children what to eat is a case of government overreach.
Mr Vilsack said he understood that the new standards may pose some challenges for school districts but said they were necessary.
The announcement is a proposal and it could be several years before the US Department of Agriculture issues a final rule on the standards and schools are required to make changes.