WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration plans sweeping changes in the school lunch program to improve the nutritional content of meals served daily to 25 million children, administration officials said yesterday.
New rules drafted by the Agriculture Department would set limits on fat, sodium and cholesterol in school lunches and would require more dietary fiber by increasing the use of vegetables, fruits and grain products.
The new standards, to be announced this week by Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, would be the biggest change in the program since it was created in 1946.
Under current rules, the government sets "meal patterns" requiring schools to offer minimum amounts of food in five broad categories: meat, bread, vegetables, fruits and dairy products. The new rules would establish a completely different approach. Local schools would be required to analyze all foods offered in a school week to ensure that meals met federal standards for fat content and specific nutrients such as protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron and calcium.
The new rules come in response to pressure from Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and address concerns expressed by students, parents and dietitians at four public hearings held around the country last fall.
In a confidential draft of the new rules, the Agriculture Department says that school meals generally do not comply with the recommendations based on the best available scientific and medical knowledge.
For example, it says, 38 percent of the calories in government-subsidized school lunches now come from fat of all kinds, while 15 percent come specifically from saturated fat, an unhealthy form of fat that contributes to hardening of the arteries, heart disease and stroke.
Under the new rules, no more than 30 percent of calories could come from fat, and no more than 10 percent could come from saturated fat. "The overriding purpose behind this rule is to serve more nutritious and healthful meals to schoolchildren," the document says.