First Lady Michelle Obama and Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced new guidelines for school lunches at Parklawn Elementary School in Alexandria on Wednesday morning as part of Obama’s Let’s Move! health campaign against childhood obesity.
Joined by celebrity chef and Let's Move! campaign supporter Rachael Ray, Obama spoke to parents, teachers, and administrators at Parklawn about the benefits of healthy eating and the positive effects the new United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) nutrition standards will have on the 32 million children participating in school lunches nationwide.
“It’s our responsibility to make sure they get basic nutrition that they need to stay healthy,” said 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. We have a right to expect that the food they get at school is the same kind of food that we want to serve at our own kitchen tables.”
The new guidelines, which are changing for the first time in 15 years, have a larger emphasis on fruits, vegetables and whole-grain options in school meals.
“Today, we make a commitment to those parents who are concerned about their youngsters health to focus on more whole grain foods, to provide low-fat and no-fat dairy products, to cut back on the sodium and sugar and fat, to make sure the portion sizes make sense, to reduce the calories that youngsters consume in school and ensure our school snacks are healthy and nutritious and can help with the density that will allow these youngsters to be the very best learners they can be,” Vilsack said.
Following their remarks, Obama and Vislack dined with Parklawn students in the cafeteria. They ate ground turkey tacos, brown rice, black beanand-corn salad and whole-grain flatbread prepared by Ray. The cafeteria was filled with raucous screams and squeals from the students when Obama entered. They were visibly excited and waved small American flags to greet the first lady.
While Obama spoke about the importance of providing a balanced meal for children, she also addressed the economic difficulty some families face in trying to feed their kids nutritious meals.
“For some children, that school meal may be their only meal of the day, so when we serve higher quality food in our schools, we’re not just fighting childhood obesity. We’re taking the important steps of fighting child hunger as well,” Obama said.
During his remarks, Vilsack referenced President Obama’s State of the Union address while commending Parklawn and schools similar to it in Fairfax County and throughout the country for their participation in the fight to build an America that’s built to last.
“It’s a red letter day for those of us who are concerned about the future… One way we can have an America that’s built to last is by having youngsters who are totally prepared for what life throws at them. To do that, they have to be the very best students. They have to be well fed. They have to be getting a nutritious start to the day and they have to have that nutrition continue throughout the day so they can focus on learning,” said Vilsack.
For parents like Ellisa Simmons, the new guidelines will help her continue to prepare healthy meals for her son DeVon, a kindergartener at Parklawn. Simmons said she was flabbergasted when she heard the First Lady was coming to the school, but supports the message of the campaign.
“I think it’s wonderful because with my child, I’m learning now how important healthier food choices are. Now I’m incorporating better selections of food for him, more fruits and vegetables, things that are healthier now instead of the stuff that he always wants to have, like pudding and cookies.”
Before Obama’s arrival, Fairfax County School Board Mason District representative Sandy Evans said she applauded Obama’s efforts to combat childhood obesity and mentioned the 9-5-2-1-0 partnership Fairfax County Public Schools has with the Northern Virginia Healthy Kids Coalition (NVHKC). The goal of NVHKC is to promote better health and well-being for all youth in Northern Virginia.
Braddock District respresentative Megan McLaughlin and at-large member Ryan McElveen agreed with Evans and said the School Board is committed to continuing the conversation about ways to improve meals in schools.
“To have Mrs. Obama address this, I hope it will provide the School Board with an opportunity to really on this issue. I truly believe this is a positive change for the kids,” said McLaughlin.
According to the New York Times, the government estimates that the new rules will cost about $3.2 billion more over the next five years. In 2010, President Obama signed a nutrition bill to allow schools to pay for the increased costs of lunches and just last year, Congress refused to allow some of the proposed changes from the USDA. Regardless, Vilsack remained confident in what the USDA is hoping to accomplish with the new guidelines.
"The food industry is already responding. "This is a movement that has started, it's gaining momentum," said Vilsack.