The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Nov. 29 announced an interim school meal flexibility final rule that extends three menu-planning flexibilities currently available to school nutrition authorities serving meals under the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs. The flexibilities relate to milk, whole grain-rich food and sodium requirements as initially outlined by a U.S.D.A. final rule published in January 2012.
“Schools need flexibility in menu planning so they can serve nutritious and appealing meals,” said Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. “Based on the feedback we’ve gotten from students, schools and food service professionals in local schools across America, it’s clear that many still face challenges incorporating some of the meal pattern requirements. Schools want to offer food that students actually want to eat. It doesn’t do any good to serve nutritious meals if they wind up in the trash can. These flexibilities give schools the local control they need to provide nutritious meals that school children find appetizing.”
The interim final rule as published in the Federal Register gives schools the option to serve low-fat (1%) flavored milk. Under the 2012 U.S.D.A. school meal nutrition requirements, school food authorities were permitted to serve only low-fat and non-fat unflavored milk as well as non-fat flavored milk. The 2012 requirement was modified by Congress in the 2017 Appropriations Act, which required the U.S.D.A. to grant state agencies that administer school lunch and breakfast programs discretion to allow school food authorities that “demonstrate a reduction in student milk consumption or an increase in milk waste to serve flavored, low-fat milk as part of a reimbursable meal or as a competitive beverage for sale through the end of school year 2017-18.”
The interim final rule also will allow states to continue to grant exemptions to schools experiencing hardship in obtaining whole grain-rich products acceptable to students during the 2018-19 school year. The whole grain-rich requirement has been subject to both U.S.D.A. and legislative exemptions in recent years, most recently under the 2017 Appropriations Act.
Mr. Perdue said schools and industry need more time to reduce sodium levels in school meals, so instead of further restricting sodium levels for the 2018-19 school year, schools that meet the current — “Target 1” — limit will be considered in compliance with the U.S.D.A.’s sodium requirements.
The U.S.D.A. stated that it currently anticipates retaining Sodium Target 1 in the final rule at least through the end of school year 2020-21 to provide school food personnel more time to procure and introduce lower-sodium food products, allow the food industry more time for product development and reformulation, and give students more time to adjust to school meals with lower sodium content. Also, the U.S.D.A. said it anticipates that the sodium requirement will continue to be evaluated for consistency with the Dietary Guidelines, which are updated every five years, and in response to congressional action, as appropriate.
The U.S.D.A. sought public comment on “the long-term availability of these three flexibilities,” indicating comments “will help inform the development of a final rule, which is expected to be published in fall 2018 and implemented in school year 2019-20.”
The School Nutrition Association commended the U.S.D.A. for the extension of the existing flexibilities into the 2018-19 school year and called for even greater flexibility under whole grain and sodium mandates. The S.N.A. has advocated restoration of the initial requirement that at least half of grains offered with school meals be whole grain-rich and to maintain the Target 1 sodium levels permanently.
“School nutrition professionals have achieved tremendous progress, modifying recipes, hosting student taste tests and employing a wide range of other tactics to meet regulations while also encouraging students to enjoy healthier school meals,” said Lynn Harvey, president of the S.N.A. “Despite these efforts, school nutrition professionals continue to report challenges with sodium and whole grain mandates, as well as limited access to whole grain waivers.”