( File photo )

Leaving fruit and vegetable serving requirements untouched, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has provided school districts more options for milk, grains and sodium standards.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a news release that the rule will give schools additional options to serve healthy and appealing meals.

The release said the Child Nutrition Programs: Flexibilities for Milk, Whole Grains, and Sodium Requirements final rule:

  • Provides the option to offer flavored, low-fat milk to children participating in school meal programs;
  • Requires half of the weekly grains in the school lunch and breakfast menu be whole grain-rich; and
  • Provides more time — until 2024-25 — to reduce sodium levels in school meals to targeted levels. 

The School Nutrition Association praised the USDA’s flexibility, emphasizing the importance of menu flexibility for salt limits.

“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,” SNA President Gay Anderson said in a news release.

While the USDA’s regulation doesn’t address fruit and vegetable servings, Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the School Nutrition Association, said the salt issue does relate to how schools serve fresh produce.

The future sodium limit would knock out some popular salad dressings, she said.

“Even a small amount of meat and cheese, and salad dressings, could very easily push a popular chef salad or any other kind of salad that includes cheese or dressing over the final sodium limits,” she said. “Schools were really struggling to find dressing that would meet those future sodium limits and still be acceptable to students.”

Without the flexibility in the final rule, schools might have had to pull back on popular toppings for fruits and vegetables, such as cheese on broccoli.