The new rules for healthier, more nutritional school lunches announced this week by the federal Agricultural department for the next school year do not go as far as they should. But given the relentless opposition of food-product industries (and their ready Republican supporters) that seems to care little about the nation's soaring obesity and diabetes rates and health-care cost, they represent a victory for children's health that is well worth applauding.
The new rules will require school cafeterias to serve meals that have twice as many as fruits and vegetables, that use only whole grains, that sharply cut sodium, trans-fat and fat, and that do not include meat for breakfast. The standards also fix new minimum and maximum calorie levels based on student age.
Lobbyists and GOP backers of the potato and frozen-food industries, the latter notorious for high sodium content, partly got their way, and seemed happy with the compromises. French fries, typically the worst food for sodium and fat, may still be served, but baked and with less salt.
The frozen food industry's Republican supporters won a key battle to keep a mere one-quarter-cup of tomato paste on pizzas classified as a vegetable, defeating the original USDA goal of a one-half-cup measure.
The shift to twice as many fruits and vegetables and sharply lower sodium and fat counts in prepared foods represents the main nutritional victory. Studies show that nearly 90 percent of American children consume a lot more fat, sugars and sodium than they should. The consequences are alarming.
More than one-third of American children (and adults) are now officially rated as obese, and another third are well above their ideal weight. As a result, the rate of early-onset, type II diabetes has soared in both adults and children, the latter of whom used to rarely develop diabetes.
Regardless, school officials across the country -- and here, as well -- have refused or stalled efforts in recent years to prohibit the sale of sodas and sodium-and-fat-laden, junk-food snack products in vending machines in schools. Their reason: They depend on profits from the vending machines, never mind the health consequences to children left in their care.
The new rules are the first in 15 years in the $11 billion school lunch program, which serves about 32 million children. Hopefully, parents and school officials will acknowledge the nutritional and health reasons for the new school lunch rules and improve on them on their own -- at school and at home.
The other ingredient in physical well-being, of course, is exercise. That's separate from the food standards, but just as essential. Schools generally need to increase their programs for exercise, and parents need to encourage that, as well as healthy diet.