USDA eases school lunch rules

THIS fall, the U.S. Department of Agriculture rolled out new school lunch rules that were designed to offer students healthier food options.
The agency sent out a memo Dec. 7 outlining «significant operational challenges in meeting the requirements for the grains and meats/meat alternative components.»
For the grains and the meats/meat alternatives, the standards set science-based, age-appropriate daily minimum quantities as well as weekly minimum and maximum quantities for total calories, the memo said.
The standards received some pushback from parents and some school districts.
School food authorities (SFAs) that comply with the new standards are eligible for school meal reimbursement as well as for a 6-cents-per-lunch, performance-based reimbursement that became available on Oct. 1.
The memo from Cindy Long, director of USDA’s child nutrition division, said the agency was advised that some SFAs have found it difficult to offer meals with meat/meat alternative items in a range of sizes — such as 3 oz. and 1 oz. — on the same day while staying within the weekly ranges.
Similar issues have arisen with grain offerings since grains may be served as part of an entree, a side dish or both and sometimes even as a dessert such as in fruit cobbler.
Long noted that the variation in the maximum grain limit by student age/grade groups has «contributed significantly to the challenges SFAs face in planning menus and serving lines to accommodate schools that serve multiple age/grade groups.»
A letter to congressional members from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack noted that USDA has been listening to those concerns and appreciates the valuable feedback.
The memo said USDA now will offer «additional flexibility» for school district meal planners to meet its meat and grain requirements.
«Certainly, these reforms will take time to yield results and require collaboration if they are to be successful,» Vilsack noted. «We always anticipated that some modifications and other allowances would be required for this size and scope.»
Another concern was feeding very active students, such as student athletes. Vilsack noted in his letter that there are a number of options to meet these challenges, including allowing students to purchase a la carte and making larger portions of fruits, vegetables or even milk available at lunch and structured afterschool snack and supper programs.
To give suppliers more time to more widely offer a broader array of serving options, state agencies should consider any SFA compliant with the component requirements for grains and meat/meat alternatives if the menu is compliant with the daily and weekly minimums for these two components, regardless of whether they have exceeded the maximums for the same components, USDA said.
The memo noted that state agencies should also take a «flexible approach» in assessing compliance with the weekly ranges for grains and meats/meat alternatives when conducting validation reviews on the 25% of previously certified SFAs this school year.
«There is no need for state agencies to reconsider or recertify any SFAs already certified as eligible to receive the 6-cent reimbursement based on previous guidance as the previously certified menus would fit within this additional flexibility approach to assessment,» the agency said.
The memo noted that «this is a year of transition» for the school meal program and, as such, encouraged state agencies to work with SFAs to help them meet the new requirements.
Congressional members have expressed concerns with the new regulations after hearing from their districts about the strain the new system could put on schools as well as the government’s overarching control over what students eat.
Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) welcomed the move but also expressed concern with USDA’s lack of fully understanding the estimated costs to schools and plate waste once they are required to meet all of the new rules.
Vilsack said USDA is focused on minimizing additional costs and is aware of the financial challenges with tight school budgets. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) did provide $3 billion in new resources for the 6-cent-per-lunch reimbursement. An additional $50 million was provided for technical assistance for 2012 and 2013.
«Finally, the HHFKA sets commonsense business standards that complement the federal resources included in the act in order to ensure that enough revenue is being brought in to cover the cost of producing healthy school meals. When taken together, these additional resources should provide enough revenue for schools to meet the new meal requirements,» Vilsack said.