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School meal flexibility wins wide praise

The Agriculture Department’s new flexibility on the servings of grains and meats in school meals is set only for this year, and will not affect the calorie count restrictions in each meal, but the relaxed regulations have won praise from the senators who called for changes and from the School Nutrition Association and nutrition advocates.

Under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, the schools are implementing new school meals rules for the first time in 17 years. The rules call for more fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and leaner meats and milk products, and in an attempt to fight childhood obesity for the first time set calorie limits on the meals served to students.

On Friday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wrote letters to senators in rural grain and meat-producing states who had said they had received complaints from school food service directors about the strictness of their rules. Vilsack announced that USDA would grant “flexibility” in the amounts of grains and meats and meat substitutes that could be served.

The agency also sent a memorandum to the schools that it had eliminated grain and meat maximums for the remainder of the 2012-2013 school year.

A USDA spokesman told The Hagstrom Report today that the new regulation is for only the current school year and that school food service providers will still have to comply with the calorie limitations, which have been controversial among some students and lawmakers. “We will be monitoring closely to determine whether other adjustments beyond the current school year will be necessary,” he said.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.
The November 20 letter to Vilsack was initiated by Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark.

In a news release, Hoeven said “I’m grateful to [Agriculture] Secretary [Tom] Vilsack for recognizing that the rules need to allow for individual differences among children and the prerogatives of local school districts, and resources available to them.”

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.

Sen. Jon Tester, R-Mont.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., another signer of the letter, said in a separate statement, “Schools need flexibility to make sure kids get the nutrition they need to focus on their studies. I appreciate USDA’s willingness to listen to Montana parents, teachers, and administrators and look forward to working with USDA to adjust these new guidelines so they work for all of our kids.”

Tester noted that he told Vilsack in November that the guidelines treated students the same “without any consideration for gender, height, weight, or level of physical activity.” The school lunch program serves about 80,000 Montana students daily, making a one-size-fits-all policy difficult to implement, he said.

Sandra Ford


Sandra Ford
Sandra Ford, president of the School Nutrition Association, which represents the preparers of school meals, said school nutrition professionals have faced “significant menu planning, operating, financial challenges and more as a result of the new meal pattern requirements.”

“USDA's new guidance acknowledges those challenges and gives school meal programs more flexibility,” Ford said in a statement.

“By easing weekly maximums for grains and proteins but maintaining calorie limits, USDA protects the nutritional integrity of the new standards while giving school meal programs more time to design healthy menus that meet both the new standards and students’ tastes,” she said. “SNA will continue to report back to USDA on how these new flexibilities ease the burden on school meal programs and will make additional recommendations as warranted.”

Margot Wootan

Margot Wootan
Margot Wootan, the director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who has fought hard for healthier meals, said the center supports the new flexibility and would favor making it permanent.

“Nutritionally, this change is minor and doesn’t undermine the overall nutrition standards,” Wootan said in an email. “Schools will still have to make the grains mostly whole grain, meet calorie standards, limit saturated fat, and serve more fruits and vegetables.”

“This is welcome news for schools, which are working hard to meet the new school lunch standards,” she continued. “But some have been struggling a bit with these parts of the requirements, as suppliers don’t yet have many products in the sizes schools are now asking for.”

But in a thinly veiled reference to bills to repeal the new rule, Wootan added, “It also should show Congress that USDA is closely monitoring the implementation of the new school lunch standards and working to help schools meet them. There is no need for Congress to interfere and change the standards legislatively.”

Erik Olson

Erik Olson
Erik Olson, director of food programs at the Pew Health Group and an advocate for healthier school meals, said he had realized that changing the meals for the first time in 17 years would require some adjustments, and said that he was “pleased [USDA officials] seem to be listening to school food directors.”

Olson also noted that the rule was released as an “interim final,” which meant that USDA would be “making some mid-course corrections.”

Olson said he is eagerly awaiting the release of an accompanying rule that sets regulations on what can be sold in school vending machines and other venues outside the regular school lunch program.

Nutrition advocates have been pushing for USDA to release this competitive foods rule for a year, but a USDA spokesman said today that Vilsack wants to be sure the rule has been written so that it can be defended, and that he has asked the Office of Management and Budget “for additional time to review the rule before moving forward.”

USDA Food and Nutrition Service Guidance to School Food Authorities: Flexibility in the Meat/Meat Alternate and Grain Maximums for School Year 2012-2013
Nov. 20, 2012 – Senators Letter to Vilsack on School Nutrition