USDA Shows Flexibility in School Lunches

DC Dialogue

Meat and grain offering tweaks made to school lunch standards but more changes still sought.

Published on: December 18, 2012

This fall the U.S. Department of Agriculture rolled out new school lunch rules which were designed to offer students healthier food options, but has received significant pushback from constituents and as a result Congressional members. The agency said it is offering "additional flexibility" for school district meal planning in meeting its meat and grain offerings.

USDA’s action is in response to criticism of the new rules from students, parents, and lawmakers, saying that the new regulations left many children hungry; the rules were too limiting as schools tried to plan daily meals; and that the rules were an overreach by the federal government. USDA officials said they were loosening the regulations after some schools found it difficult to buy alternative portion sizes of such foods from suppliers and that some schools had inventory to use up that does not meet the new guidelines. “School nutrition professionals have faced significant menu planning, operating, financial challenges, and more as a result of the new meal pattern requirements,” The School Nutrition Association said in a statement.

A letter to Congressional members from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack noted that the agency has been listening to those concerns and appreciated the valuable feedback and as part of the process is moving forward on allowing additional flexibility.

"Certainly these reforms will take time to yield results and require collaboration if they are to be successful. We always anticipated that some modifications and other allowances would be required for this size and scope."

The agency sent out a memo Dec. 7 which outlined "significant operational challenges in meeting the requirements for the grains and meats/meat alternative components" and said it would offer additional flexibility moving forward.

For the grains and the meats/meat alternates components there are science-based, age-appropriate daily minimum quantities, as well as weekly minimum and maximum quantities for total calories, the memo said. School Food Authorities (SFAs) that comply with the new standards are eligible for reimbursement for school meals, as well as for a 6 cent per lunch performance-based reimbursement that became available on October 1, 2012.

The memo from Cindy Long, director of USDA's child nutrition division, said that the agency had been advised that some SFAs have found it difficult to offer meals with meat/meat alternate items in a range of sizes – such as 3 oz. and 1 oz. on the same day and stay within the weekly ranges. 

Similar issues have risen with grain offerings since grains may be served as part of an entrée, a side dish or both and sometimes even as a dessert such as a fruit cobbler. Long also noted that the variation in the maximum grain limit by age/grade groups has "contributed significantly to the challenges SFA face in planning menus and serving lines to accommodate schools that serve multiple age/grade groups."

To allow for more time for suppliers 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 alternates 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, the agency said.

The memo noted that State agencies should also take a "flexible approach" in assessing compliance with the grains and meats/meat alternates weekly ranges 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" and as such encouraged state agencies to work with SFAs to assist them in meeting the new requirements. The new regulations have received concern from Congressional members who have heard from their districts about the strain the new system could put on local schools as well as the government's overarching reach into 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 USDA’s new rules.

Vilsack said USDA is focused on minimizing additional costs and is aware of the financial challenges of school on tight 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 2012 and 2013 for technical assistance.

"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 wrote.

Another concern was feeding very active students, such as student athletes. In Vilsack's letter he noted there are a number of options to meet these challenges including allows students to purchase a la carte, making larger portions of fruits, vegetables or even milk available at lunch and structured afterschool snack and supper programs.

The adjustments announced by USDA are considered by many as minor as the overall calorie limits remain intact. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who has been pressing USDA to change the rules, along with Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., called for more permanent action. “It may be difficult for all students to get adequate protein to feel full through the school day,” Hoeven said in a statement. “Protein is an important nutrient for growing children,” he said.

Long said that the agency would consider extending the change.