USDA finalizes school nutrition rule

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service Dec. 6 announced an interim final rule increasing local flexibility in implementing school nutrition standards for milk, whole grains and sodium to be published later in the “Federal Register.”

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a news release that the rule will deliver on the USDA proclamation in May 2017 “to develop forward-thinking strategies that ensure school nutrition standards are both healthful and practical.” The rule makes changes to regulations that were instituted under the Obama administration.

“USDA is committed to serving meals to kids that are both nutritious and satisfying,” Perdue said. “These common-sense flexibilities provide excellent customer service to our local school nutrition professionals, while giving children the world-class food service they deserve.”

The actions taken will, according to the USDA release, benefit nearly 99,000 schools and institutions that feed 30 million children annually through USDA’s school meal programs. This rule is part of USDA’s Regulatory Reform Agenda, developed in response to President Donald Trump’s executive order to eliminate unnecessary regulatory burdens.

The Child Nutrition Programs: Flexibilities for Milk, Whole Grains, and Sodium Requirements final rule offers schools new options as they serve meals under the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program and other federal child nutrition programs. The rule:

  • Provides the option to offer flavored, low-fat milk to children participating in school meal programs, and to participants ages 6 and older in the Special Milk Program for Children and the Child and Adult Care Food Program;

  • Requires half of the weekly grains in the school lunch and breakfast menu be whole grain-rich; and

  • Provides more time to reduce sodium levels in school meals.

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,” Perdue said. “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,” Perdue said.

Reaction to the final rule fell along ideological lines.

The School Nutrition Association, which represents school food service directors and the companies that make school foods, said, “This final rule strikes a healthy balance. Schools will continue to meet strong nutrition standards but can prepare meals that appeal to a wide range of students.”

The final rule maintains Target 1 sodium limits for school meals through School Year 2023-2024, preserving the significant sodium reductions schools have already achieved, an SNA release said.

A national SNA survey last year revealed that schools have employed many tactics to meet sodium limits for school meals, including reformulating recipes, increasing scratch preparation, limiting condiments and reducing portion sizes, but that 92 percent of schools were concerned about the availability of foods that will meet the future sodium limits that USDA was planning.

Under the final rule, Target 2 sodium limits will take effect in School Year 2024- 2025, and the final target will be eliminated, SNA said.

The final rule will also restore the mandate that at least half of grains offered with school meals be whole-grain rich, allowing schools to occasionally serve a few refined-grain options as needed without having to apply for a waiver, SNA said.

The National Milk Producers Federation commended Perdue for returning low-fat (1 percent) flavored milk as part of the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs.

“NMPF thanks Secretary Perdue for completing this step that will encourage milk consumption in schools,” said Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the NMPF. “USDA’s own studies have shown that students drank less milk after low-fat chocolate milk was removed from schools.

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“Returning low-fat flavored milk to school menus will help reverse this harmful trend. 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.”

In 2012, the 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 2012-15, even as public-school enrollments grew, an NMPF release said.

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, NMPF added.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, which advocated for the Obama-era regulations, said the rule shows that “the Trump administration is putting politics before children’s health in ways worse than were expected.”

The rule “locks in dangerously high levels of salt and brings back more refined white flour to school meals,” a CSPI release said.

Nine out of 10 children consume too much sodium, and one in six children has high blood pressure, CSPI said.

“At first, the Trump administration proposed delaying the next phase of sodium reduction from school year 2017-18 to school year 2020-21. The final rule goes further than what was proposed by delaying the second sodium reduction targets to school year 2024-25, seven years later than initially required,” a CSPI release said.

“Worse yet, the administration eliminated the third and final sodium reduction targets that originally were set to go into effect school year 2022-23. This will mean that school lunches will fail to be consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, as is required by law.

“The rule allows more white flour and other refined grains in place of whole grains in schools, reverting from all grains being whole-grain rich to only half. That more than 85 percent of schools are successful in serving whole grains (and not requesting waivers) shows that schools can serve and kids will eat whole grains.

The administration also is allowing flavored low-fat milk back into schools without any calorie or sugar limits.

“Parents will be disappointed when they learn that the meals served to their kids in school are under attack from President Trump’s deregulatory agenda.”

Larry Dreiling can be reached at 785-628-1117 or [email protected].