WASHINGTON — Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue on Jan. 17, during a round table discussion on school nutrition issues held in San Antonio, announced a new proposed rule that would provide local school food authorities additional flexibility in planning National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program meals. The proposed rule also would reduce regulatory burdens faced by those same bodies partly by extending administrative review cycles to five years from three. The proposed rule is titled Simplifying Meal Service and Monitoring Requirements in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. Its publication in the Federal Register will mark the beginning of a 60-day public comment period.
“Schools and school districts continue to tell us that there is still too much food waste and that more commonsense flexibility is needed to provide students nutritious and appetizing meals,” Mr. Perdue said. “We listened, and now we’re getting to work. Our proposed changes empower schools to give their very best to our children nationwide and have the potential to benefit nearly 100,000 schools and institutions that feed 30 million children each school day through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s school meal programs.”
Flexibilities contained in the proposed rule included loosening certain meal requirements related to fruits and vegetables that the U.S.D.A. asserted would reduce food waste.
The proposed rule would allow school food authorities implementing the National School Lunch Program to offer the same amount of vegetables, ½ cup weekly from each of the five subgroups — dark green, red/orange, legumes, starchy and other — to all age/grade groups. Currently, menu planners are required to offer ½ cup of most vegetable subgroups during a school week but must offer larger quantities of red/orange vegetables (for all age/grade groups) and of “other vegetables” (for grades 9-12). The U.S.D.A. said reducing operational complexity by requiring the same quantities of all vegetable subgroups would simplify planning and meal services.
The proposed rule also would allow legumes offered as a meat alternate in a meal to count toward the weekly legumes vegetable requirement.
The proposed rule would allow schools to offer a meat/meat alternate or a grain at breakfast, or a combination of the two, with no daily minimum grain requirement. Currently, schools may offer meat/meat alternates only after the minimum daily grain requirement is met.
Also related to the School Breakfast Program, the proposed rule, with state agency approval, would allow schools serving breakfast in a non-cafeteria setting (such as bagged prepared lunches eaten in a school room or on a bus) to offer ½ cup of fruit per day (2½ cups per week) as part of reimbursable breakfasts as opposed to 1 cup a day. Currently, schools must offer 1 cup of fruit per day, 5 cups per week, to students whether they eat the breakfast in a cafeteria setting or not. While students eating breakfast in a cafeteria now must be offered 1 cup of fruit per meal, they may opt to select ½ cup, and the meal still would be reimbursable.
The proposed rule would exempt entrees from competitive food standards (nutrition requirements applying to foods sold in the school but separately from what is offered in the cafeteria, i.e., a la carte and snack food) the day it’s offered on the School Breakfast or National School Lunch menu and for two days thereafter. Currently, the entree is exempt from competitive food standards for only one day after it originally was served.
Separately from the changes contained in the proposed rule, the U.S.D.A. sought public comments on whether or not to permanently allow school food authorities to credit any vegetable offered in place of fruit at breakfast, including potatoes and other starchy vegetables, without including vegetables from the designated subgroups in the weekly breakfast menus. Congress provided this flexibility to school food authorities on a temporary basis in each of the last two consolidated appropriation acts.
The U.S.D.A. also requested comments on whether the whole grain-rich/whole grain as a first ingredient requirement should be removed from the definition of “entree” and whether or not to extend the competitive food entree exemption to all food items offered in School Breakfast Program and National School Lunch Program reimbursable meals.
The School Nutrition Association said it will review “these lengthy proposed rules and will collect member feedback as it prepares the association’s official comments to U.S.D.A. prior to the 60-day submission deadline.” The S.N.A. favored the U.S.D.A.’s previous reform of the federal feeding programs in 2018, which involved increased flexibility around requirements for whole grains, sodium and milk.
Nancy E. Roman, president and chief executive officer of the Partnership for a Healthier America, said, “The new proposed rules changes from the U.S.D.A. Food and Nutrition Service appear to be a step in the wrong direction. Putting politics aside, the science of the past few years suggests that we should be increasing the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables at each meal. Young children especially need more exposure to unprocessed, easy-to-eat fruits, vegetables and greens.”