Paul Sakuma, Associated Press
Fairmeadow Elementary School second grade student Jonathan Cheng, center, looks at fruits and vegetables during a school lunch program in Palo Alto, Calif., Thursday, Dec. 2, 2010. School lunches are leaner because of new guidelines from the USDA meant to combat childhood obesity.

Kids should see fewer tater tots and more broccoli on their school lunch trays this year, thanks to new United States Department of Agriculture guidelines unveiled last January. Now, schools must serve fruits and vegetables each day, offer only fat-free and low-fat milk varieties, reduce unhealthful fats and sodium, and limit calories based on the age of children being served.

If the thought of all that crunchy, low-calorie food makes you miss the good old mac and cheese days, you might enjoy an activity being sponsored by Public Insight Network. Entrants pick traditional favorites from USDA's list of school lunch recipes, serve them up to friends and family, then tell about the meal and share photos online.

The contest is good fun, but the new school lunch requirements address a serious problem. They are part of an effort led by First Lady Michelle Obama to curb the obesity epidemic among American children.

"These regulations were sparked by staggering reports that nearly 17 percent of children are considered obese. Immediately, educators and politicians knew they had to do something and school lunches were really the only meals they could feasibly control," according to the Global Good Group blog. "Before these regulations, the typical school lunch was cheese pizza, canned pineapple, some greasy, fried tater tots and chocolate milk (non-low fat/reduced fat). Now, though: the typical school lunch would be whole-wheat cheese pizza, baked sweet potato fries, raw grape tomatoes, low-fat ranch dip, applesauce and low-fat milk."

There is wide praise for the effort to boost nutrition and cut calories in school lunches, but there are pockets of concern, too. The roll-out of leaner school lunches coincides with release of a USDA report that says the number of households suffering from food insecurity — hunger — is rising in the United States.

In 2011, 17.9 million U.S. households were food insecure, meaning there was difficulty providing food for all members at some time during the year due to lack of resources, the report said. In one-third of those homes, the problem was severe, causing members to reduce food intake and alter normal eating patterns. Children were food insecure at times in 10 percent of U.S households.

For households with incomes near or below the federal poverty line, households with children headed by a single parent, and black and Hispanic households, rates of food insecurity were substantially higher than the national average, the USDA said. Hunger at home was more common in large cities and rural areas than in suburban areas and other outlying areas around large cities.

In Knoxville, Tenn., Union County schools nutrition director Jennifer Ensley said many students in the federal free-lunch program need the calories the old school lunched provided, as reported on WATE Channel 6 television station.

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Some Knoxville students are paying for second helpings or packing lunches, but those options aren't available to all, according to WATE Channel 6.

"It's hard to see a kid walk out of here hungry when you don't know what else they're going to have before breakfast tomorrow," Ensley said.

For most American children, though, consuming too many calories is a bigger health threat. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years, putting children at risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and bone and joint problems.