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Big changes coming to school lunches

Monday - 8/27/2012, 6:57am  ET

Paula Wolfson, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - As kids head back to school, their biggest changes may be in the cafeteria.

New federal rules are in effect for the school lunch program, and they are having an impact on the foods being served locally and around the country.

Administrator Audrey Rowe of USDA's Food and Nutrition Service says school lunches are getting a makeover so they will be healthier for students of all ages.

"They will see more fruits and vegetables that will be offered everyday in their lunches. They will see more grains, fat-free or low-fat milk," says Rowe.

Another big change implemented this school year: portion sizes based on a child's age. Middle schoolers, for example, will get more calories than kids in elementary school.

Rowe says the goal is to give kids a lot of healthy options. Pizzas are getting whole wheat crusts, while baked sweet potato fries, grape tomatoes and apples are becoming regulars on lunch trays.

Rising child obesity rates helped bring about the first major overhaul of the lunch program in 15 years. But, Rowe says, "what is more important is people learning how to have a healthy lifestyle."

Rowe acknowledges its tough.

"It's a cultural change," she says. This is why they are trying to instill healthy havits in young children.

"Well, the earlier you do it, the more successful and the easier it is," Rowe says.

She has been traveling around the country talking to kids about the new look of their school lunches. She says most are excited, including her own grandchildren in Massachusetts.

"I got an email that said: 'Hey grandma, we've got a new chicken and it was terrific and I really like it, it looks like it is working. Grandma, when are you coming?'"

She says ultimately, the success or failure of the changes will be determined by the number of additional kids who decide to buy lunch at school. And she says despite the increase in quality, schools should be able to hold the line on prices.

Click h ere to learn more about the school lunch program.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)