U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue rolled out an interim rule designed to “provide flexibility” to schools in meeting nutrition standards set by the Obama administration.
The changes—which take effect next school year—affect rules related to whole grains, sodium, and milk served with school meals. They fall short of the aggressive scale-back that some conservative members of Congress have pushed for in recent years.
The original nutrition rules, championed by former first lady Michelle Obama, require schools to cut back on salt and fat and to serve more whole grains, fresh fruits, and vegetables.
The standards, created under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, were praised by groups concerned about childhood obesity, but K-12 and industry groups said they’ve been costly and difficult for many schools.
Under the rules announced last week, states can grant exemptions during the 2017-18 school year from requirements that all grain products in school meals are whole-grain richif schools are “experiencing hardship” in meeting them. That extends previous flexibility the agency granted after schools complained it was difficult to find whole-grain foods like pastas to meet the rule. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said it “will take all necessary regulatory actions to implement a long-term solution” related to whole grains.
Through 2020, schools will be considered in compliance with sodium rules for school foods if they meet current restrictions. The original nutrition standards included a schedule of restrictions that limited salt more and more over time. Schools were scheduled to implement tougher sodium requirements in the 2017-18 school year. Some schools said the limits made meals less desirable for students.
The USDA will also create a rule that will allow schools to serve 1 percent flavored milk, Perdue said. Under the previous rules, schools could only serve non-fat flavored milk.
When the rules were originally created, the intent was that they should be regularly reviewed, Perdue said as he announced the changes at a school in Leesburg, Va. The interim changes came with a promise that the USDA would look for longer-term ways to alter the school nutrition regulations. The USDA estimates that the more-stringent requirements cost districts and states an additional $1.22 billion in the 2015 fiscal year.
“This announcement is the result of years of feedback from students, schools, and food service experts about the challenges they are facing in meeting the final regulations for school meals,” Perdue said. “If kids aren’t eating the food, and it’s ending up in the trash, they aren’t getting any nutrition—thus undermining the intent of the program.”
Health Advocates Disappointed
He announced the changes alongside Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, who chairs the Senate agriculture committee, and leaders of the School Nutrition Association, an industry group that has pushed for changes to school meal rules.
Patricia Montague, the association’s CEO, said in a statement that her group welcomed the new flexibility. “School nutrition professioals are committed to the students they serve and will continue working with USDA and the secretary to strengthen and protect school meal programs,” she said.
Among the regulations Perdue’s rule won’t affect are competitive foods standards, which govern what schools can offer in vending machines, on cafeteria a la carte lines, and through fundraisers. Some conservative lawmakers, including Roberts, say those rules unfairly hurt extracurricular budgets and drive students away from eating school meals.
Groups who support the nutrition standards are disappointed with the changes, including National PTA and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“For some children, the only food they eat each day comes from the federal school meals program,” American Academy of Pediatrics President Fernando Stein said in a statement. “They rely on these meals to give them the right balance of fruits, vegetables and whole grains so they can concentrate and succeed in school. Healthy eating habits start early and schools have an important role to play.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2017 edition of Education Week as Obama-Era Nutrition Standards Loosened for School Meals