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Calling it "a red-letter day for kids in America," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Wednesday that just-unveiled nutrition standards for school meals will help provide a healthier future for young people by increasing the amounts of fruits, vegetables and whole grains served in school cafeterias while also cutting sodium, sugar and calories. 

Vilsack joined celebrity chef Rachael Ray on a conference call with reporters before heading to a Virginia elementary school to present the new school meal standards alongside First Lady Michelle Obama. Vilsack said the new rules are "the most significant change in nutrition standards that we've seen in a generation" and said they will go a long way in not only improving kids' health, but preparing them for the future.

“For them to be prepared, they have to be good learners," Vilsack says. "And for them to be good learners, they have to be well fed.”

The final standards are the first major change to come to school meals in more than 15 years. Under the standards, schools must offer fruits and vegetables every day, increase offerings of whole grains, offer only fat-free or low-fat milk and limit calories based on childrens' ages. Saturated fat, trans fats and sodium content also is limited.

Vilsack said the agency is working hard to ensure meals are both nutritious and tasty, and will provide an additional six cents per meal to help schools cover any costs to implement the standards. 

The final standards were unveiled after a year of work by the USDA, which was required to revamp school meals by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The agency released a set of recommendations in early 2011, and more than 130,000 people wrote the agency to weigh in (including thousands from the network).

While food adovcates mostly joined Vilsack in praising the new standards, they noted some progress remains to be made. Schools can still serve starchy foods such as french fries, and the tomato sauce on pizza still can count as a vegetable — a move that generated much controversy in the fall.

But Vilsack and Ray both said the standards are a big step forward. "I think that’s a distraction from the great stride that’s being made here," Ray said of the pizza controversy.

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation CEO Risa Lavizzo-Mourey* praised the new standards, saying they will help improve school meals for all children, but especially those most in need.

"By adopting science-based nutrition advice, these guidelines contribute to the goal of reversing the childhood obesity epidemic while ensuring that our most vulnerable children get the foods and beverages they need to grow up strong and healthy," she said in a statement. "I'm especially please that, in addition to limiting unhealthy fats and calories, the new guidelines also encourage students to eat more fruits and vegetables and try other healthy options, such as whole-grain breads and pastas and low- and non-fat milk."

Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said in a statement the new standards are the best ever put forth by the federal government. She urged the USDA to work with schools, food manufacturers, cafeteria workers and parents to ensure the standards are properly implemented.

"The new school meal standards are one of the most important advances in nutrition in decades," Wootan said. "They’re much needed, given high childhood obesity rates and the poor state of our children’s diets.

Jessica Donze Black, project director of the Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods Project, echoed those comments, saying that "improving school meals comes at a critical time for childrens' health."

"Nearly one in three adolescents in the United States today is overweight or obese, and young people increasingly suffer from diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure," she said. "We know that reversing this trend will not be easy, and that action will be required on many fronts – not just in educational settings. But because many children consume more than half of their daily calories in school, making sure schools serve healthier foods is a good place to start."

First Lady Michelle Obama said the new standards will help parents in their own efforts to provide a healthy diet for their kids.

"When we send our kids to school, we expect that they won't be eating the kind of fatty, salty, sugary foods that we try to keep them from eating at home," said Obama, who advocates for healthier school meals through her Let's Move! campaign. "We want the food they get at school to be the same kind of food we would serve at our own kitchen tables."

*Note: is a project of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.