Finalizing one of his first actions as secretary, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue finalized a rule offering additional flexibilities for school nutrition standards for milk, whole grains and sodium.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture “is committed to serving meals to kids that are both nutritious and satisfying,” said Perdue. “These common-sense flexibilities provide excellent customer service to our local school nutrition professionals, while giving children the world-class food service they deserve.”
Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) applauded the rule change.
“In one of his first official acts as secretary of agriculture, I joined Sonny Perdue in announcing school meal regulatory flexibility,” said Roberts. “I’m pleased he has made good on that promise. This important rule helps to ensure that schoolchildren across the country will have full stomachs, not full lunchroom trash cans.”
Specifically, the rule, which will be published later this month in the Federal Register, will provide the option to offer flavored, low-fat milk to children participating in school meal programs, and to participants ages six and older in the Special Milk Program for Children (SMP) and the Child & Adult Care Food Program (CACFP).
In 2012, USDA eliminated low-fat flavored milk as an option in school meal and a la carte programs, after which milk consumption in schools dropped. Students consumed 288 million fewer half-pints of milk from 2012 to 2015, even as public-school enrollments grew.
The USDA action will allow schools to offer low-fat flavored milk without requiring them to demonstrate either a reduction in student milk consumption or an increase in school milk waste, bureaucratic hoops that had limited their ability to offer low-fat flavored milk in the 2017-18 school year, the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) said in a statement.
“USDA’s own studies have shown that students drank less milk after low-fat chocolate milk was removed from schools. Returning low-fat flavored milk to school menus will help reverse this harmful trend,” said Jim Mulhern, NMPF president and CEO. “Milk has been an integral part of school meals since their beginning, and greater milk consumption equals better nutrition for America’s kids. The new rule is good news for schools, students and American dairy farmers.”
FarmFirst Dairy Cooperative said it was elated at the action. John Rettler, president of FarmFirst Dairy Cooperative, said, “This is a step in the right direction in ensuring that school cafeterias are able to provide valuable nutrition in options that appeal to growing children’s taste buds. Their good habits now have the potential to make them lifelong milk-drinkers.”
Rettler added ideally, these same school cafeterias should offer 2% or whole flavored milk as well, providing schoolchildren with a great variety of healthy beverage options. “In fact, more and more studies show the health benefits of consuming milkfat. FarmFirst Dairy Cooperative will continue to advocate for these higher milkfat options until they are included on school menus,” said Rettler.
International Dairy Foods Assn. (IDFA) president and chief executive officer Michael Dykes also commended the action.
“Milk is the #1 source of nine essential nutrients in student diets. Milk also is a source of three out of four nutrients of public health concern for under-consumption: potassium, vitamin D and calcium. Dairy consumption is linked to improved bone health, especially in children and adolescents. These are three good reasons why milk has always been a central part of school meals, and students now will have expanded choice with every meal," Dykes said.
The final rule also provides more time to reduce sodium levels in school meals. Dykes said this too is appreciated. “This action is positive for the cheese industry, because sodium is an essential ingredient in cheese that cannot be easily lowered,” he said.
Previously the school lunch standards required 100% whole-grain use, but the new rule requires only half of the weekly grains in the school lunch and breakfast menu be whole grain-rich.
Perdue said schools have faced challenges serving meals that both are appetizing to students and meet the nutrition standards. “If kids are not eating what is being served, they are not benefiting, and food is being wasted,” said Perdue. “We all have the same goals in mind -- the health and development of our young people. USDA trusts our local operators to serve healthy meals that meet local preferences and build bright futures with good nutrition.”
“We will continue to listen to schools, and make common-sense changes as needed, to ensure they can meet the needs of their students based on their real-world experience in local communities,” said Perdue.