Federal

USDA Keeps More-Flexible School Lunch Caps in Place

By Evie Blad — January 14, 2014 3 min read
Students pick up their lunch at Barre Town Elementary School in Barre Town, Vt., in September.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has made permanent its rules that eased restrictions on the amount of grain and lean protein that school cafeterias participating in the National School Lunch Program are allowed to serve their students each week.

The new rules, unveiled this month, replace a temporary measure published in 2012. The change was hailed as a victory by national school organizations and by members of Congress who have filed bills in recent years that would have made similar changes.

The USDA originally drafted the now-amended rules on maximum weekly servings of meat, meat substitutes, and grains as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The rules were aimed at supporting a policy designed to tackle childhood obesity by restricting calories and mandating more whole grains and vegetables on school lunch and breakfast trays.

The effort to ease those requirements was first encouraged by school food-service directors, who complained that the serving limits were hard to implement. Cafeterias with multiple meal choices could exceed grain limits by offering daily sandwich items in one of their serving lines, they said, and a salad topped with chicken and grated low-fat cheese would exceed protein limits.

The now permanently relaxed rules remove the caps on grain and protein servings. Schools are considered compliant if they meet minmum-serving requirements in those areas and don’t exceed overall calorie caps.

“While this flexibility has been available to schools on a temporary basis since 2012, making it permanent provides schools and industry with needed stability for long-term planning,” Janey K. Thornton, the USDA’s deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services, said in a Jan. 3 blog post announcing the changes.

Need for Latitude

Leah L. Schmidt, the president of the School Nutrition Association and food service director for the Hickman Mills school district in Missouri, praised the permanent change.

“School Nutrition Association members are pleased that USDA has provided this permanent fix, acknowledging the need for greater flexibility in planning well-balanced school meals,” Ms. Schmidt said in a statement posted on the website of the 55,000-member group.

“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,” she said.

Members of both parties in Congress had filed at least six bills that took aim at the grain and protein requirements. None was enacted.

“A one-size-fits-all approach to school lunch left students hungry and school districts frustrated with the additional expense, paperwork, and nutritional research,” U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican, said in a statement posted on his website.

Mr. Hoeven partnered last year with Sen. Mark Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat, to introduce the Sensible School Lunch Act, a bill that would have made changes similar to those in the new USDA rule.

Pressure to change the law stemmed from school nutrition directors’ concerns that it did not give them the flexibility to prepare a variety of dishes that were both nutritious and filling for students.

Widespread Compliance

In the 2010-11 school year, 48.1 percent of the nearly 49 million students in U.S. public schools qualified for free or reduced-price lunches, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Many of them rely on school meals for much of their daily food intake.

Advocates for the federal standards created after the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act have said school cafeterias can help students form healthy eating habits that will last into adulthood.

Despite some complaints, the new standards have been widely adopted, the USDA says. A survey released in September by the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project found that 94 percent of 3,372 district food-service directors surveyed during the 2012-13 school year—before officials announced plans to permanently ease grain and protein serving rules— expected to come into complete compliance with the rules.

A version of this article appeared in the January 15, 2014 edition of Education Week as USDA Opts to Keep in Place More-Flexible Lunch Rules

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