WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture on May 20 announced new flexibility for school districts working to meet updated whole grain requirements for school meals. During the 2013-14 school year, the U.S.D.A. received comments from schools indicating that the whole grain-rich products on the market did not hold together when produced in large quantities for school cafeterias. Based on this information, schools that demonstrate significant challenges in serving whole grain-rich pastas may continue serving traditional enriched pasta products for up to two more years, as industry works to develop healthy pasta that works for schools.

Beginning in the 2014-15 school year, all grains and bread in school meal programs must be “whole grain-rich,” meaning that they contain at least 50% whole grain meal and/or flour. These requirements also reflected the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommended making whole grains at least half of all grains consumed.

Many types of pasta, including those available through U.S.D.A. Foods, meet the whole grain-rich criteria. However, during the 2013-14 school year, the U.S.D.A. was advised by some schools that certain whole grain-rich pastas raised a challenge for school menus. Some of the available products, such as lasagna and elbow noodles, degraded easily during preparation and service and were difficult to use in larger-scale cooking operations. Additional consultations with both schools and pasta industry experts confirmed this challenge.

Whole grain-rich pastas made from blends of whole grain and enriched flours maintain better consistency, but these products are still emerging in the marketplace. So, the U.S.D.A. recognized that U.S.D.A. Foods and industry may need additional time to develop a range of acceptable whole grain-rich pastas. As a result, the U.S.D.A. will offer flexibility in this area for those districts serving menu items with whole grain-rich pastas that do not hold together well.

School districts that wish to take advantage of the two-year flexibility must obtain approval from their state agency by demonstrating that they experienced significant challenges in preparing and serving whole grain-rich pasta products in their schools. This is a temporary flexibility intended to provide additional time for the development of acceptable whole grain products that meet U.S.D.A.'s science-based standards.

The U.S.D.A. said it is committed to working in partnership with food manufacturers as they continue their efforts to expand the selection of appealing whole grain-rich pastas available to schools. The U.S.D.A.’s Food and Nutrition Service also will continue to assist state agencies and school districts by developing technical resources to assist schools with preparation methods for whole grain-rich pasta.

The May 20 announcement followed other flexibilities the U.S.D.A. has implemented based on advices from schools regarding legitimate challenges in implementing updated school nutrition standards. Earlier this year, the U.S.D.A. made permanent additional flexibility around the portion sizes for grains and meats/meat alternates. The department also has provided flexibility by phasing in the standards gradually over time rather than requiring immediate compliance. For example, requirements for the breakfast program were phased in over a period of three years. The U.S.D.A. pointed out it has continued to provide schools across the country with grants and technical support to help implement the nutrition standards.

More than 90% of schools report they are successfully meeting the updated nutrition standards, the U.S.D.A said.

“I applaud the U.S.D.A.’s decision to provide flexibility for schools on whole grains,” said Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. “This is an important step in continuing to help schools provide children with healthy and nutritious meals. Although the vast majority of schools are making great strides in serving healthy meals that kids enjoy, schools in Michigan and throughout the country are still struggling to serve some whole grain items like pasta. I have raised these concerns with the secretary, and I am pleased to see the U.S.D.A. is committed to making these standards work. Like the modification to meat and grain maximums, the change to whole grains shows that we can work together to address these issues when they arise without rolling back important steps we have taken to improve the foods kids eat throughout the school day.”