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USDA relaxes school meal requirements

USDA grants schools more flexibility when it comes to milk, whole grains and sodium. Here’s why I support this new rule.

Amanda Radke

December 9, 2018

4 Min Read

In my 10 years of blogging for BEEF, I have spent a great deal of time covering the nation’s school lunch programs. As the previous administration placed limitations on animal fats and proteins for student meals, this topic became a major concern for BEEF readers, and with good reason — kids need protein to fuel their brains and their growing bodies!

As a mom with a school-aged child, I’ve become increasingly interested in what’s being served in the school cafeteria. In conversations with other moms, it’s quite evident that fewer kids are participating in the school lunch program and much of the food being pushed by strict USDA guidelines is ending up in the trash.

Unfortunately for many school districts, the strict, one-size-fits all approach set by the federal government just didn’t mesh with the local students and their taste buds. In my opinion, it’s much better to allow states the flexibility to determine a lunch program that best fits and serves their communities vs. having Big Brother in Washington, D.C. dictate what can and cannot be served on the lunch tray.

Good news for students, teachers and parents — change is on its way.

Last week, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue unveiled a final rule on school meals which will increase local flexibility in implementing school nutrition standards for milk, whole grains and sodium.

Related:Trump axes Michelle Obama’s school lunch program

“USDA is committed to serving meals to kids that are both nutritious and satisfying,” said Perdue in a press release. “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 new rule will impact 99,000 schools and 30 million school-aged children who participate in USDA’s school meal programs. This rule, according to the USDA, is part of USDA’s Regulatory Reform Agenda, which focuses on eliminating unnecessary regulatory burdens.

Specifically, the new rule titled, “Child Nutrition Programs: Flexibilities for Milk, Whole Grains, and Sodium Requirements,” provides the option to offer flavored, low-fat milk to kids; requires half of the weekly grains in these school lunch and breakfast menu be whole grain-rich; and provides more time to reduce sodium levels in school meals.

Of the rule, Perdue said, “If kids are not eating what is being served, they are not benefiting, and food is being wasted. 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.”

Related:Why one Montana school is ditching Obama’s school lunch program

While this news doesn’t directly relate to beef being served in schools, I think this rule is a great and necessary change. I, too, trust my local school district to create a menu that is both nutritious and delicious.

A bonus is with greater flexibility, schools can source more food items from local producers, which benefits the community and ultimately puts food on the plate that reflects the tastes and food preferences specific to the local students.

Others feel the same way. As reported by AgriPulse, the School Nutrition Association (SNA), which represents 58,000 U.S. school nutrition professionals, stated its support.

SNA President Gay Anderson said in a press release, “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. We appreciate Secretary Perdue for finding solutions to address the concerns of schools and students. This rule will entice more students to eat healthy school meals, which meet calorie limits and offer fruits, vegetables and milk.”

The National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) also praised USDA’s new rule. Jim Mulhern, NMPF president and CEO, said, “NMPF thanks Secretary Perdue for completing this step that will encourage milk consumption in schools. USDA’s own studies have shown that students drank less milk after low-fat chocolate milk was removed from schools. Returning low-fat flavored milk to school menus will help reverse this harmful trend.”

Despite the praise, others strongly opposed USDA’s move. According to an official statement from the American Heart Association, “USDA’s decision to weaken the standards—despite overwhelming opposition—threatens to reverse our progress toward ensuring our nation’s children receive healthy meals at school that help them attain better long-term health and academic success. If the concern truly was to provide those few schools experiencing challenges with more ‘flexibility,’ the more responsible approach would have been for USDA to provide more technical assistance to these institutions so they could offer healthier food choices.”

With this flexibility, there’s no reason schools can’t choose to maintain the current standards they have been required to follow. However, the big difference now is there is greater control on the state and local level, which I think is always a good thing.

Let’s serve our kids healthful but great-tasting foods that they’ll actually eat. If you’re a parent, you know that’s easier said than done, but creating more strict guidelines makes that goal even harder to accomplish, don’t you think?

The opinions of Amanda Radke are not necessarily those of beefmagazine.com or Farm Progress.


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