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How many children can say they have had lunch with the first lady?

Parklawn Elementary School students were joined Wednesday by Michelle Obama, who visited the school to unveil new national health standards for school cafeteria meals.

“When we send our kids to school, we expect that they won’t be eating the kind of fatty, salty, sugary foods that we try to keep them from eating at home,” Obama said during a meeting with parents and the media in Parklawn’s library before having lunch with second- and fourth-grade students in the cafeteria.

The school’s menu Wednesday — ground turkey tacos with Mexican brown rice, black beans and corn salad, with a side serving of fruit — was designed from a recipe by celebrity chef Rachael Ray, who also visited the school. Both Obama and Ray went through the lunch line with students, and ate lunch surrounded by children in the Parklawn cafeteria.

Parklawn Elementary in Alexandria is home to about 780 students, according to the Fairfax County Public Schools system. During the 2010-11 school year, about 70 percent of Parklawn’s students qualified for the federal free and reduced-priced meals program.

Anyone who has worked with children knows that poor nutrition can prevent students from focusing in class and reaching their full potential, Obama said.

The new health standards include an increase in the availability of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, fat-free and low-fat milk in school meals, and aims to reduce the sodium and saturated fat levels in meals.

The standards were established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture through recommendations from a panel of experts convened by the Institute of Medicine, a national nonprofit established as the National Academy of Sciences’ health arm in 1970. The standards are expected to impact about 32 million students nationally and cost an estimated $3.2 billion during the next five years.

The standards are part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act signed into law by President Barack Obama.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who also spoke to Parklawn parents, attributed the changes gaining momentum to the first lady’s Let’s Move! campaign, which promotes student health and fitness.

“It’s a red-letter day for those of us concerned about this nation’s future,” Visack said. “[Students] have to be well fed. They have to have nutritious meals at the start of the day…We must do everything possible to provide them the nutrition they need to be healthy, active and ready to face the future. Today, we take an important step toward that goal.”

Parklawn Elementary —along with 45 other county schools — was awarded in June with the school system’s Wellness Award for its efforts to promote wellness in the school and community during the 2010-11 school year.

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com