Agriculture Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon announced new flexibility for school districts working to meet updated whole grain requirements for school meals. During the current school year, USDA received feedback from schools that the whole grain rich products currently on the market did not hold together when produced in large quantities for school cafeterias.
Based on this input, schools that demonstrate significant challenges in serving whole-grain rich pastas can now continue serving traditional enriched pasta products for up to two more years, as industry works to develop healthy pasta that works for schools.
"Schools raised legitimate concerns that acceptable whole-grain rich pasta products were not available. We worked to find a solution which will allow more time for industry to develop products that will work for schools," said Concannon. "We continue to listen and work closely with schools and parents to implement common sense nutritional guidance that supports a healthier next generation. But, with one third of American children fighting obesity, we cannot accept politically motivated efforts to undermine standards and deny kids healthier options."
The move was welcomed by Sen. Mark Pryor (D., Ark.), chairman of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.), chairwoman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture. Pryor called it a "good first step" and added he'll continue to push that school districts have the flexibility needed to meet their goals while still keeping kids healthy.
“Although the vast majority of schools are making great strides in serving healthy meals that kids enjoy, schools in Michigan and throughout the country are still struggling to serve some whole grain items like pasta. I have raised these concerns with the Secretary and I am pleased to see USDA is committed to making these standards work. Like the modification to meat and grain maximums, the change to whole grains shows that we can work together to address these issues when they arise without rolling back important steps we have taken to improve the foods kids eat throughout the school day,” Stabenow said.
To help reduce America's childhood obesity epidemic and reduce health risks for America's children, the U.S. Department of Agriculture set new school meal standards based on expert recommendations from the Institute of Medicine to ensure kids are being served healthy food while they are at school. A recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health shows that children are already choosing to eat healthier foods, including more fruits and vegetables, as a result. Experts identified increased consumption of whole grain foods as a key factor in helping lower childhood obesity and reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic diseases.
Therefore, beginning next school year, all grains and breads in school meal programs must be "whole grain-rich," meaning that they contain at least 50% whole grain meal and/or flour. These requirements also reflect the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommended making whole grains at least half of all grains consumed.
Many types of pasta, including those available through USDA Foods, meet the whole grain-rich criteria. However, during the current school year, USDA heard feedback from some schools suggesting that certain whole grain-rich pastas raised a challenge for school menus. Some of the available products, such as lasagna and elbow noodles, degraded easily during preparation and service and were difficult to use in larger-scale cooking operations. Additional consultations with both schools and pasta industry experts confirmed this challenge.
Whole grain-rich pastas made from blends of whole grain and enriched flours maintain better consistency, but these products are still emerging in the marketplace. Therefore, USDA recognizes that USDA Foods and industry may need additional time to develop a range of acceptable whole grain-rich pastas. As such, USDA is offering flexibility in this area for those districts serving menu items with whole grain-rich pastas that do not hold together well.
School districts that wish to take advantage of this two-year flexibility must obtain approval from their state agency by demonstrating that they experienced significant challenges in preparing and serving whole grain-rich pasta products in their schools. This is a temporary flexibility intended to provide additional time for the development of acceptable whole grain products that meet USDA's science-based standards.
USDA said it is committed to working in partnership with food manufactures as they continue their efforts to expand the selection of appealing whole grain-rich pastas available to schools. USDA's Food and Nutrition Service will also continue to assist state agencies and school districts by developing technical resources to assist schools with preparation methods for whole grain-rich pasta.
The announcement follows other flexibilities USDA has implemented based on feedback from schools regarding legitimate challenges in implementing updated school nutrition standards. Earlier this year, USDA made permanent additional flexibility around the portion sizes for grains and meats/meat alternates. The Department has also provided flexibility by phasing in the standards gradually over time rather than requiring immediate compliance. For example, requirements for the breakfast program were phased in over a period of three years. USDA has continued to provide schools across the country with grants and technical support to help implement these standards to produce quality, healthy meals for kids.
Over 90% of schools report they are successfully meeting the updated nutrition standards, and a USDA analysis suggests that nationwide schools saw a net revenue increase in the first year of implementing the updated standards and preparing more nutritious meals.