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The school taco is getting a makeover. Today, the USDA released new school lunch standards. They trimmed salt, sugar and portion sizes to make lunch healthier. First Lady Michelle Obama was on hand at an elementary school in Alexandria, Virginia for a taste test.
NPR's Allison Aubrey has the story.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: As the first lady slid her tray down the lunch line with a bunch of students at Parklawn Elementary, she scooped up the brown rice turkey tacos served with fresh salsa on whole grain flatbread.
MICHELLE OBAMA: This is so nice. It's so well prepared. Oh, I love it.
AUBREY: And she says this is what a meal is supposed to look like. Lots of color, lots of taste, but lighter on fat, calories and salt. Talking to parents who'd gathered at the school, the first lady says these new standards, which also mandate two servings of veggies per meal, aren't only about combating obesity. They're also about helping kids stay sharp mentally in the classroom, avoiding those mid-afternoon sugar crashes. And, hopefully, she says, the standards will help reinforce the messages lots of moms and dads have been trying to drill into kids' heads about good nutrition.
OBAMA: When we send our kids to school, we have a right to expect that they won't be eating the kind of fatty, salty, sugary foods that we're trying to keep from them when they're at home.
AUBREY: More than 32 million kids participate in school meal programs every day and advocates who've been pushing for healthier meals say this is progress, though the rules are not as aggressive as the Obama administration had hoped for.
Margo Wootan directs nutrition efforts at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
MARGO WOOTAN: It's a huge step forward. These new school meal standards will mean much healthier foods on our kids' lunch trays.
AUBREY: Even though the trays will continue to carry servings of French fries and pizza, Wootan says the U.S. Department of Agriculture was not able to finalize a provision that would have restricted servings of French fries, nor were they able to cancel out a rule that allows schools to count pizza as a vegetable. On these issues, she says Congress and powerful food lobbyists prevailed.
WOOTAN: Under the new standards, even though USDA wasn't able to do what they wanted to do around limiting French fries and not counting pizza as a vegetable anymore, there still will be healthier pizza in the school lunch.
AUBREY: It'll have a whole grain, be lower in sodium and fat and it will need to be served with another vegetable. The USDA estimates that the price tag for new nutrition standards will total about $3.2 billion over the next five years, with many of the changes being phased in gradually. But Diane Pratt-Heavner of the School Nutrition Association says school food directors are already trying creative ways to win students over on healthier eating.
DIANE PRATT-HEAVNER: We're seeing more schools with salad bars and student taste tests and Harvest of the Month programs that they're really trying to encourage kids to expand their pallets and try fruits and vegetables that they might not have encountered at home.
AUBREY: As for mom, Ellisa Simmons, who attended the first lady's announcement today, she says these new lunches, especially the two servings of vegetables, will be better than what she usually manages to pack for her son.
ELLISA SIMMONS: We're always so pressed for time. You just throw here and there. You figure one is good enough.
AUBREY: So, Simmons says, from now on, her son will be eating the school lunch.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News.