More than 600 schools nationwide – but only one in Colorado – did what it took in the past year to meet the HealthierUS School Challenge requirements of expanded nutritional offerings and increased physical activity opportunities for students.

Kids at B.F. Kitchen Elementary School in Loveland get 30 minutes of physical education five days a week as part of the school's commitment to wellness.

That makes B.F. Kitchen Elementary in Loveland one of 1,250 U.S. schools to be honored so far in the two-year-old program.

The results were announced today during a conference call hosted by U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Kevin Concannon. The call was to highlight the historic school nutrition reforms and improvements students will see this year thanks to the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

Though the school challenge isn’t part of the legislation, it is a key component of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Initiative to end childhood obesity. Schools participating in the challenge voluntarily adopt USDA standards for food served at school, agree to provide nutrition education and provide more opportunities for physical activity.

Learn more

In Colorado, B.F. Kitchen Elementary School in Loveland received a Gold Award of Distinction, the highest-level rating in the challenge, in March. Concannon said that representatives from each of the award-winning schools will be invited to a White House dinner in October.

“Like the president said in his State of the Union address, if we want to win the future, we have to win the race to educate our children,” Concannon said. “That means no child should have to learn on an empty stomach.”

Legislation impacts many areas of school food

The historic legislation, which passed with rare bipartisan support, impacts everything from what kinds of foods and drinks children will be served in their school lunchrooms, to how much they’ll pay for it, to who will be allowed to eat for free or at a discount.

Resources & reports

The legislation will expand the availability of after-school meals this year, in essence providing dinner for an additional 140,000 low-income children. It also will promote expanded school breakfast programs, and makes it easier for some poor children to get free or reduced-price school meals.

Some of the more controversial provisions – which won’t go into effect this year – increase the nutritional standards for school meals. Schools will be required, for example, to offer both a fruit and a vegetable at lunchtime. They also would have to double the amount of fruit served at breakfast, as well as offer both a whole-grain and a protein product at the morning meal. Permitted sodium levels in the foods, meanwhile, would gradually decrease.

“Part of the reason for phasing in the lower sodium is because the food industry in general needs to change the sodium content of foods,” Concannon said. “This will also require some adjustment of the palate. We’re addicted to sodium in our food, even if we don’t realize it’s been added.”

Concannon said the USDA has received more than 130,000 comments on the proposed new nutrition guidelines, which are set to go into effect in 2012.

“A number of schools are implementing portions of it, but they’re not required to until the next school year,” he said. “This is going to be a reach, but we want it to be achievable.”

Federal funding increases now a question mark

Accompanying the increased nutritional standards is an increase in federal funding for school meals, the first in 30 years. Starting next year, schools will receive an additional 6 cents per meal served, adjusted annually for inflation.

But the increased funding was a promise made last year, before the debt ceiling crisis elicited Congressional promises to cut more than $1 trillion in spending over the next 10 years. Most of the cuts won’t take effect before 2014, but Concannon acknowledged the uncertainty.

“At this point, we don’t know what will happen in terms of the 2012 budget, but at this point we’re not suggesting schools alter course,” he said. “It’s pretty clear that this legislation is a priority for the White House, and it had bipartisan support in Congress. I know people know its importance to the schools.”

School nutrition viewed as national security issue

Also speaking during the telephone press conference was retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. D. Allen Youngman, co-author of some recent reports put out by Mission Readiness, a national security non-profit group led by retired military officers.

Those reports include “Too Fat to Fight,” which found that 27 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds in the United States are too fat to serve in the military, and “Ready, Willing and Unable,” which found that fully 75 percent of Americans 17 to 24 cannot join the military for one reason or another, including obesity or other health concerns, lack of a high school diploma, or because they have a criminal record.

“The class of 2023 started first grade this week,” Youngman said. “We’ll be trying to recruit them in about 12 years. If we don’t do some things differently, most of them won’t be eligible for military service.”