Responding to complaints about skimpy portions in school meals, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has relaxed its weekly maximum limits on grains and meats served in school lunches.
A Dec. 7 memo from the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service to school nutrition officials asks them to disregard weekly maximums on those items because it is difficult to comply. Those limits were set by nutrition guidelines that started with the new school year.
Nutrition advocates favor the decision, saying it’s a modest change that could prevent Congress intervention.
A YouTube video of students mocking changes to school lunches received more than 1 million views, and some lawmakers criticized USDA calorie limits.
USDA’s flexibility on the issue lets schools serve larger portions of bread and meat, to help implement school nutrition standards this school year, according to the memo. The agency it would monitor the situation to see if more changes are necessary.
New USDA nutrition standards identify the healthy ranges for five categories of food, including fruits, vegetables, grains, meats or meat alternatives, in addition to defining the healthy ranges for total calories, saturated and trans fat and sodium. School districts that comply with the new standards are eligible for reimbursement for school meals and a 6 cents per lunch increase in federal funds, which began on Oct. 1.
The USDA is helping school districts adjust to the new rules, School Nutrition Association president Sandra Ford, National Harbor, Md., said in a statement.
“School nutrition professionals have faced significant menu planning, operating, financial challenges and more as a result of the new meal pattern requirements,” she said.
“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.”
Tracy Fox, president of Food, Nutrition & Policy Consultants LLC, Washington, D.C., said the change shows the agency has been listening to concerns about grain and protein limits. “They did a good thing by offering schools a little more flexibility,” she said.
USDA has not announced whether these new flexible standards for grain and protein requirements will continue into the 2013-14 school year.
Fox said nutrition advocates are still waiting for the USDA to release proposed rule on competitive foods in schools.