USDA strikes balance on school lunches

Permanent flexibility provided to help schools comply with school meal requirements.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to add flexibility to help schools comply with school meal requirements.

The agency plans to publish in the Federal Register Jan. 3 a plan that permanently removes a maximum limit for proteins and grains in school meals. For the past two years USDA temporarily eased the meat and grain requirements, allowing schools more flexibility in serving meats and grains while still staying within calorie maximums.

Agriculture undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon said earlier this school year USDA made a commitment to school professionals that USDA would make the meat and grain flexibility permanent and provide needed stability for long-term planning.

"We have delivered on that promise," Concannon said.

The original law says that schools can only serve an average of 2 oz. of meat per meal. That’s just three chicken nuggets for a high school student.

Many schools could not offer daily sandwich choices because serving two slices of whole-grain bread each day exceeded weekly grain limits, and salads topped with grilled chicken and low fat cheese surpassed weekly protein limits.

USDA said it has worked closely with schools and parents during the transition to healthier breakfasts, lunches and snacks. Based on public feedback, USDA has made a number of updates to school meal standards, including additional flexibility in meeting the daily and weekly ranges for grain and meat/meat alternatives, which has been available to schools on a temporary basis since 2012.

School Nutrition Association (SNA) members applauded the move. SNA President Leah Schmidt, SNS, said,  “With school nutrition professionals already planning menus and inventory for the 2014-15 school year, eliminating the grain and protein limits is a key step to providing healthy menus that appeal to students.”

Legislation had been introduced in both the House and Senate to give schools the flexibility to provide healthy meals for students.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, said she cosponsored legislation to give schools the flexibility they need. She said the recent action by the USDA uses the approach in the Senate legislation to "strike the right balance, which helps put schools and students on the right path forward.”

Heitkamp, a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, said she will continue to push for sensible school nutrition standards as the committee considers reauthorization of child nutrition programs next year.

USDA reported in September that after surveying states and schools across the country, the vast majority of schools—80%—have already reported that they are meeting the updated meal standards successfully, with some states reporting 100% of schools completely transitioned to the new standards.  A study released by the Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods Project found that last year 94% of U.S. school districts  said they were on track to meet the updated nutrition standards for lunches by now.

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