(March 12) AUSTIN, Texas — With obesity levels higher than the national average, the second most populous state is leading the nation in improving the nutritional content of meals the state’s schools serve by issuing new rules cutting fats and adding produce to school menus.

Through rules released March 3 for schools participating in federal nutrition programs, Texas Agriculture Secretary Susan Combs ordered the state’s schools to serve less junk food.

The policy, which takes effect Aug. 1, reduces the number of grams of fat and sugar students may consume each week, ends second helpings and limits portion sizes of chips, cookies and other bakery items.

The policy also restricts sale of foods —such as those found in vending machines — that compete with a school’s food programs.

The standards require that fruit and/or vegetables “should be offered daily on all points of service” and “should be fresh whenever possible.”

The rules, developed after eight months of collaboration with nutritionists, dietitians, health officials, medical professionals, school administrators and parents, apply to national school lunch, breakfast and after school snack programs.

“We really want to push fruits and vegetables every single place that we can, at all schools and at all levels,” she said.

Concerns over obesity and other children’s health issues prompted the rules, Combs said.

The number of overweight and obese Texans increased 43% from 1990 to 2001, according to the Texas Department of Health.

Indeed, Houston was nation’s fattest city until Detroit recently knocked it from its perch, she said.

The 22% of the state’s children classified as overweight compared to the 15% national average is a call to action for the state, Combs said.

“The public understands that we have got to do better for our kids,” Combs said.

Since children receive up to 60% of their daily food intake at school, the state has to ensure its campuses have healthier food offerings, she said.

John McClung, president of the Texas Produce Association, Mission, said the secretary has been advocating healthier school meals for a long time.

“She has been perturbed for some time that kids have so much availability of junk foods in the schools,” he said.

Trent Bishop, assistant sales manager of the McAllen office of Monterey, Calif.-based FoodSource Inc., said any program that improves school food would help.

“The stuff I see my daughters eat (in the schools) is definitely all processed. There’s not much fresh in there at all,” he said.

Bishop and McClung agree, however, that schoolchildren aren’t the only ones needing lessons on fresh produce.

“The problem in the schools is not just kids’ preferences,” McClung said.

The school foodservice institution, he said, has lot of problems handling fresh produce.

“They are reluctant to handle it and would prefer it come in a can or a frozen package because it’s easier to deal with,” McClung said.

Distributors face a rigorous logistical process in trying to send produce into the schools, Bishop said.

“There’s just some really tough and strict regulations on what can and can’t go in there,” he said.

The rules will affect 93% of Texas’ public and charter schools.

“It’s a huge goal and it will be a slow process,” Combs said. “The problem with Texas is that we don’t have years or even months to wait. We have to do it now.”