School Lunch Meat and Grain Flexibility Now Permanent, USDA Decides

USDA listens to public, legislators on meat and grain requirements in latest revamp of school lunch standards

Published on: Jan 3, 2014

Temporary flexibilities allowing schools to serve larger portions of lean protein and whole grains as part of a school lunch will now be permanent, USDA's Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon said Thursday.

The announcement builds on continuing pressure from schools, lawmakers and parents who said the original requirements, which provided both a minimum and maximum serving size, were too strict and did not provide adequate nutrition for all students.

Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., an outspoken opponent of the standards as first written, called them a "one-size-fits-all" policy, leading to a USDA decision last year that temporarily lifted the maximum protein and grain limits.

LUNCH TRAY OVERHAUL: USDA listens to public, legislators on meat and grain requirements in latest revamp of school lunch standards
LUNCH TRAY OVERHAUL: USDA listens to public, legislators on meat and grain requirements in latest revamp of school lunch standards

"Earlier this school year, USDA made a commitment to school nutrition professionals that we would make the meat and grain flexibility permanent and provide needed stability for long-term planning," Concannon said Thursday. "We have delivered on that promise."

According to USDA, this latest update, and a number of others, have been in response to public feedback.

"USDA is focused on improving childhood nutrition and empowering families to make healthier food choices by providing science-based information and advice, while expanding the availability of healthy food," the agency said, suggesting that schools are meeting the new meal standards.

USDA notes that policies and actions such as the MyPlate website, grants for training and farm-to-school programs, and lunch equipment will improve the health and nutrition of the nation's children.

Noem in November announced a plan to further revamp the now two-year-old lunch standards by not only permanently lifting the protein and grain maximums – which the USDA just granted – but also giving administrators flexibility on some of the rules that she said have increased costs for school districts.

Other legislators who spoke out against the USDA standards included Sens. John Hoeven, R-N.D. and Mark Pryor, D-Ark. The two Senators penned the Sensible School Lunch Act, which was introduced in December, 2012, to also make the protein and grain changes permanent.

"Today, the USDA made the changes we have been seeking to the School Lunch Program," Hoeven noted in a press statement Thursday. "A one-size-fits-all approach to school lunch left students hungry and school districts frustrated with the additional expense, paperwork and nutritional research necessary to meet federal requirements.

"Our Sensible School Lunch Act would have made the changes in any case," he added.

USDA plans to publish a final rule in the Friday's Federal Register on Certification of Compliance with Meal Requirements for the National School Lunch Program under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, Pryor's office indicated.

Under the final rule, schools will be considered compliant with the new meal requirements if they meet the weekly minimums for grain and meat/meat-alternates, as well as the total calorie ranges.