WASHINGTON, Aug. 30 -- The health advocacy group Public Voice on Tuesday urged the federal government to move faster and take more ambitious steps to improve the health quality of school lunches. The non-profit group, in an appeal to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said it conducted a study that found U.S. schools already have the ability to dramatically improve student lunches, such as reducting fat and sodium Public Voice released its report as the USDA neared the Sept. 8 deadline for public comment on a proposed update to rules setting minimum nutritional standards for meals served in the nation's public schools. The USDA said its proposed changes, announced in June and due to take effect with the 1998-99 school year, would represent 'the most sweeping improvements ever in the 48-year history of the National School Lunch Program.' Among other requirements, the proposed changes would set specific standards for calories, protein, fat and such key nutrients such as calcium, iron, and vitamins A and C. But Public Voice Executive Director Mark Epstein said Tuesday his group's study of 41 school districts nationwide showed that schools already are ready to meet even tougher guidelines without significant added expense. 'These case studies show that the creativity, commitment, knowledge and technology to create healthier lunches already exists from coast to coast,' Epstein said. 'It is important to note that schools have not made healthful changes by simply offering bean sprouts, tofu burgers and other unfamiliar fare that you might expect kids to reject,' he said.
'Rather, food service personnel have achieved impressive successes through subtle, creative and flavorful changes that often make the new meal either indistinguishable or better tasting than the original.' He said such changes include using turkey instead of ground beef, baking instead of frying, and replacing salt with herbs and spices. Public Voice's recommendations to the USDA included: --Requiring the new federal dietary guidlines to take effect two years earlier than planned, with the 1996-97 school year; --Adding nutritional restrictions on fat and saturated fat; --Applying nutritional guidelines to purchases of individual commodities; --Ensuring that 'competitive' foods available to students, such as alternative fast foods and items from vending machines, also meet dietary guidelines. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., joined Epstein at a news conference and praised the 41 schools involved in the Public Voice study for 'setting the right example for the rest of the nation.' 'I do not have to tell you that school lunches are a vital part of the education process,' Leahy said. 'That was true when I was a child, and it is still true today.'