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Poll: After Pizza, Potatoes, and Pink Slime Issues, Changes Favored

From guest blogger Nirvi Shah:

A new poll finds that Americans overwhelmingly want better nutrition standards for the food and drinks sold in schools.

The poll results released today by the Pew Charitable Trusts' Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods Project find that 80 percent of American voters are in favor of national standards that would limit calories, fat, and sodium in snack and à la carte foods sold in schools and encourage the consumption of fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy items.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is scheduled to soon release new standards for foods sold in school vending machines, school stores, and à la carte lines in school cafeterias, foods that include sodas and other sugary drinks, fried and salty snacks, pizza, ice cream and French fries. Existing standards for these foods are 30 years old and don't reflect current nutrition science.

"Schools are taking considerable steps to ensure the meals they serve are more nutritious than ever before, but if students are surrounded by less healthy beverage and snack options, we're not doing everything we can," said Jessica Donze Black, a registered dietitian and project director for the Kids' Safe & Healthful Foods Project, in a statement. "If we want to succeed in turning around this country's obesity epidemic, ensuring that all of the foods and beverages sold in schools are healthy and nutritious is an obvious place to start."

The survey responses may have been fueled by fights last fall over rules about what's in students' school meals sold through the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program. The USDA wanted to limit potatoes in school lunches, but senators from potato-growing states quashed their efforts. The agency also wanted to eliminate a provision that allows a small quantity of tomato paste to count as a serving of vegetables—making a slice of pizza the equivalent of say, a serving of squash.

Then earlier this year, momentum grew for the USDA to eliminate a beef product dubbed "pink slime" from school beef offerings.

The survey of 1,010 registered voters, including an oversample of public school parents, also found that 83 percent of Americans think food sold in school vending machines is not really healthy or nutritious—compared with 5 percent who think it is. In addition, 68 percent said they think food sold in à la carte lines is not really or only somewhat healthy or nutritious.

"Children eat a significant amount of their daily calories during the school day, so it is essential that all foods and drinks available in school contribute to a nutritious diet," said Robert W. Block, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, in a statement. "Strong nutrition standards will make significant improvements in the health of all our nation's children. We all benefit if kids stay healthy, because over the long-term, healthier kids mean lower health care costs and increased productivity."

The survey also found that 81 percent of voters are concerned about the issue of childhood obesity, including more than half who say they are very concerned.

Once the USDA releases its proposed standards for so-called competitive foods sold in school, the public will have 90 days to comment. Then the agency will have some time to weigh those comments and adjust the final standards. It was during this time with proposed standards about school meals that senators took action against proposed limits on potatoes.

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