By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Millions of schoolchildren will have more fruit and vegetables and less fat in their meals under U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards unveiled on Wednesday aimed at reducing childhood obesity.
In the first major changes to school meals in more than 15 years, the new USDA guidelines will affect nearly 32 million children who eat at school. They will cost about $3.2 billion to implement over the next five years.
"Improving the quality of the school meals is a critical step to building a healthy future for our kids," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement.
The new meal requirements are part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act championed by first lady Michelle Obama and aimed at reducing childhood obesity. President Barack Obama approved the measure in 2011.
About 17 percent of U.S. children and teenagers are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About one-third of U.S. adults are obese.
The new guidelines include offering fruits and vegetables every day and substantially increasing offerings of whole grain-rich foods, the USDA statement said.
Schools may offer only fat-free or low-fat milk varieties and must assure that children are getting proper portion sizes.
The new standards will be largely phased in over a three-year period, starting in the 2012-13 school year.
As part of the new standards, schools will receive another 6 cents a meal. Food and beverages sold in vending machines and other school sites "will also contribute to a healthy diet," the statement said.
The USDA administers 15 nutritional assistance programs, including the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs.
(Reporting By Ian Simpson. Editing by Paul Thomasch)