WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s final rule on school meal programs increases flexibility in implementing nutrition standards for milk, whole grains and sodium, the U.S.D.A. said Dec. 6 when releasing the rule, which may be found here.

 “U.S.D.A. is committed to serving meals to kids that are both nutritious and satisfying,” said Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. “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 final rule broadens milk options in the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program by allowing local operators to permanently offer flavored, low-fat milk. In regulations implemented in 2012, flavoring was allowed only in fat-free milk. The new rule also will allow flavored, low-fat milk in the Special Milk Program for Children and in the Child and Adult Care Food Program for people age 6 and older.

The final rule will require half of the weekly grains in the school and breakfast menu be whole grain-rich, which ends an exemption progress for schools that were unable to make all grains offered to be whole grain-rich. The U.S.D.A. defines “whole grain-rich” as products containing at least 50% whole grains with the remaining grains being enriched.

The final rule also will provide schools in the lunch and breakfast program more time for gradual sodium reduction by retaining Target 1 sodium reductions through the end of the 2023-24 school year, continuing to Target 2 sodium reduction in the 2024-25 school year and eliminating the final target.

Boy drinking chocolate milk with school lunch“If kids are not eating what is being served, they are not benefiting, and food is being wasted,” Mr. Perdue said. “We all have the same goals in mind: the health and development of our young people. U.S.D.A. trusts our local operators to serve healthy meals that meet local preferences and build bright futures with good nutrition.”

The final rule will go into effect for the 2019-20 school year, which begins July 1.

The School Nutrition Association, Arlington, Va., praised the final rule while the American Heart Association, Dallas, criticized it.

“This final rule strikes a healthy balance,” said Gay Anderson, president of the School Nutrition Association, a national non-profit organization representing 58,000 school nutrition professionals. “Schools will continue to meet strong nutrition standards but can prepare meals that appeal to a wide range of students.”

The U.S.D.A. announced an interim final rule on Nov. 30, 2017, and then received 86,247 public comments from that date until Jan. 29, 2018. Groups criticizing the final rule pointed to the number of public comments that opposed the interim final rule.

“U.S.D.A.’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,” the American Heart Association said. “If the concern truly was to provide those few schools experiencing challenges with more ‘flexibility,’ the more responsible approach would have been for U.S.D.A. to provide more technical assistance to these institutions so they could offer healthier food choices.

Girl with pizza and fries for school lunch“When it comes to our children’s health, there should be no ‘flexibility.’ Failing to meet the science-based sodium standards for school meals originally adopted by U.S.D.A. will put kids’ health in jeopardy.”

The U.S.D.A. said a vast majority of the total public comments were form letters. Sixteen form letter campaigns comprised 84,453 form letter copies. The comments were submitted by people participating in letter campaigns organized primarily by MomsRising, the American Heart Association Sodium Reduction Initiative, Salud America! and the Union of Concerned Scientists. The form letters were mostly from parents and other individuals urging the U.S.D.A. to retain strong nutrition requirements for school meals.

Of the 83,720 comments on the interim sodium flexibility rule, 550 supported it, 83,152 opposed it and 18 comments were mixed. Of the 5,546 comments on the interim milk flexibility rule, 36 supported it, 5,441 opposed it and 69 comments were mixed. Of the 84,333 comments on the interim whole grain-rich flexibility rule, 43 supported it, 83,767 opposed it and 523 comments were mixed.

“Virtually all school districts have met the first sodium reduction targets,” said Margo G. Wootan, Ph.D., vice-president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Washington. “Instead of building on that progress, the administration has chosen to jeopardize children’s health in the name of deregulation.

Boy getting school lunch“The rule allows more white flour and other refined grains in place of whole grains in schools, reverting from all grains being whole grain-rich to only half. That more than 85% of schools are successful in serving whole grains (and not requesting waivers) shows that schools can serve and kids will eat whole grains. The administration also is allowing flavored low-fat milk back into schools without any calorie or sugar limits.”

The School Nutrition Association said one of its surveys showed 65% of school districts reported challenges in meeting a mandate that all grains must be whole grain-rich.

Michael Dykes, D.V.M., president and chief executive officer of the Washington-based International Dairy Foods Association, pointed out the health benefits of milk.

“We commend U.S.D.A.’s commitment to provide students with access to a variety of nutritious and healthy milk options, including the flavored milks they enjoy,” he said. “Milk is the No. 1 source of nine essential nutrients in student diets. Milk is also a source of three out of four nutrients of public health concern for under-consumption: potassium, vitamin D and calcium.”