girl drinking school lowfat milk Rick Brady/SNA

USDA expands school meal flexibilities

Changes include allowing for low-fat flavored milk options, exemptions on whole grain standards and maintaining current sodium targets.

In one of his first moves after taking office in May, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue promised to ease the restrictions on federal school meal requirements. In an updated School Meal Flexibility Rule published Nov. 29, the U.S. Department of Agriculture made additional targeted changes for meals provided under USDA’s National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program and is asking customers to share their thoughts on those changes with the department.

Perdue said the rule reflects USDA’s commitment to work with program operators, school nutrition professionals, industry and other stakeholders to develop forward-thinking strategies to ensure that school nutrition standards are both healthful and practical.

“Schools need flexibility in menu planning so they can serve nutritious and appealing meals,” Perdue said. “Based on the feedback we’ve gotten from students, schools and foodservice professionals in local schools across America, it’s clear that many still face challenges incorporating some of the meal pattern requirements. Schools want to offer food that students actually want to eat. It doesn’t do any good to serve nutritious meals if they wind up in the trash can. These flexibilities give schools the local control they need to provide nutritious meals that school children find appetizing.”

This action reflects a key initiative of USDA’s Regulatory Reform Agenda, developed in response to the President’s executive order to alleviate unnecessary regulatory burdens. Other USDA initiatives of this kind will be reflected in the forthcoming fall 2017 Unified Agenda of Federal Regulatory & Deregulatory Actions.

The interim final rule gives schools the option to serve low-fat (1%) flavored milk. Currently, schools are permitted to serve low-fat and nonfat unflavored milk as well as nonfat flavored milk. The rule additionally would provide this milk flexibility to the Special Milk Program and Child & Adult Care Food Program operators serving children six years of age and older. States will also be allowed to grant exemptions to schools experiencing hardship in obtaining whole-grain-rich products acceptable to students during the 2018-19 school year.

In 2012, USDA eliminated low-fat flavored milk as an option in the school meal and a la carte programs, which resulted in a large drop in milk consumption in schools. Students consumed 288 million fewer half-pints of milk from 2012 to 2015, even though public school enrollment was growing.

"We appreciate the Secretary’s understanding that the regulatory process needed to move quickly so schools may include low-fat favored milk in their menu planning and procurement processes,” said Dr. Michael Dykes, president and chief executive officer of the International Dairy Foods Assn. (IDFA). “Today’s action will help reverse declining milk consumption by allowing schools to provide kids with access to a variety of milk options, including the flavored milks they enjoy.”

Earlier this year, Congress passed the fiscal 2017 omnibus appropriations bill that included provisions to allow schools to offer low-fat flavored milk. In addition, Reps. Glenn Thompson (R., Pa.) and Joe Courtney (D., Conn.) have introduced legislation, the School Milk Nutrition Act, to expand the ability of schools to offer various milk options. Their ongoing efforts in Congress have led to a greater awareness of the milk shortfall challenge in schools that today’s USDA action begins to address.

Schools and industry also need more time to reduce sodium levels in school meals, Perdue said. So, instead of further restricting sodium levels for 2018-19, schools that meet the current “Target 1” limit will be considered compliant with USDA’s sodium requirements. Perdue again lauded the efforts of school food professionals in serving healthful, appealing meals and underscored USDA’s commitment to helping them overcome remaining challenges they face in meeting the nutrition standards.

“We salute the efforts of America’s school food professionals, and we will continue to support them as they work to run successful school meals programs and feed our nation’s children,” Perdue said.

This rule will be in effect for the 2018-19 school year. USDA will accept public comments on these flexibilities via to inform the development of a final rule that is designedaddress the availability of these three flexibilities in the long term.

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