The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 directed the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to release new standards updating and improving the health of foods served in America’s schools. Earlier this week, the USDA, with the help of the First Lady Michelle Obama, announced the release of the final school meals standards in the Federal Register.

What do these higher standards mean for your kids and our future workforce and military? Healthier school meals will not only combat America’s childhood obesity epidemic, but also improve nutrition for kids who do not have access to healthy foods outside of school.

Some of the new improvements include the doubling of fruit and vegetable servings, and an increase in the variety of vegetables served in school lunches. And for the first time ever, USDA has set school meal standards on sodium and whole grains. The USDA will also now require that all milk that is served in school be low fat or fat free milk. In addition, USDA has now set calorie standards that address not only hunger, but also obesity, by now including calorie maximums rather than only minimums.

As previously discussed on this blog, the standards could have been even better. Special interest groups were able to convince Congress to weaken the original proposed standards through a “rider” that handcuffed USDA and blocked its full implementation of nutrition recommendations made by the nonpartisan Institute of Medicine. As a result, tomato paste on pizza will continue to count as a vegetable and USDA is prevented from limiting the amount of French fries served in schools.

The USDA is also updating regulations on food and drinks sold in school vending machines and other “competitive foods.” Corporate special interests have also targeted those regulations, so stay tuned for additional updates on that debate.

But despite these victories of politics over science, the new standards will do a lot to improve school meals. For example, under the new rules, pizza will have to be served with an additional vegetable, be lower in sodium, and have a crust rich in whole grains.

The new meal standards will go into effect in the school year that begins in 2012. The schedule for when schools will implement the new meal standards can be found here. There is still much work to do to help schools serve healthy meals, but the new standards are a great next step toward healthier school meals for all children.