The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service on Dec. 7 issued guidance to school food authorities across the country that provides new flexibility with regard to serving grain foods and meat/meat alternate foods in the nation’s school breakfast and school lunch programs. For the remainder of the 2012-13 school year, school food authorities will be considered “compliant with the component requirements for grains and meat/meat alternates if the menu is compliant with the daily and weekly minimums for these two components, regardless of whether they have exceeded the maximums for the same components.”

The new guidance reflected acknowledgment of difficulties encountered by states and schools in serving meals that fit within the weekly minimum and maximum serving ranges for grains and meat/meat alternates as established in new standards announced last April and implemented with the beginning of the current school year.

The F.N.S. guidance said grains were unique among components in the new school lunch standards in that they may be served in a variety of ways.

“This variety may create challenges for school menu planners considering different portion sizes for a single meal and across the various meals that may be offered on a given day, and that must be summed to stay within weekly ranges,” the agency said. Among problems encountered by school food authorities was “at present popular grain products such as rolls and bread may not be readily available from suppliers in the wide range of serving sizes needed to meet the grain range weekly requirements, thus exacerbating planning challenges.”

The F.N.S. also acknowledged, “The variation in the maximum grain limit by age/grade groups also has contributed significantly to the challenges school food authorities face in planning menus and serving lines to accommodate schools that serve multiple age/grade groups.”

The F.N.S. indicated there were similar problems confronting school food authorities in attempting to meet the meat/meat alternative component of the new school lunch standards.

The flexibilities announced in the guidance apply only to the 2012-13 school year. The F.N.S. said it would continue to “monitor implementation data and
feedback from school food authorities and state agencies to determine whether the appropriate approach is being used to measure compliance, and whether other adjustments beyond the current school year prove necessary.”

“School nutrition professionals have faced significant menu planning, operating and financial challenges and more as a result of the new meal pattern requirements,” said Sandra Ford, president of the School Nutrition Association. “U.S.D.A.’s new guidance acknowledges those challenges and gives school meal programs more flexibility.”

The milling and baking industry views the F.N.S. guidance as good news as schools will have more flexibility to offer nutritious grain products to students without penalty, said Christine Cochran, executive director of the Grain Foods Foundation.

“Childhood obesity is an epidemic that we in the milling and baking industry care about deeply,” Ms. Cochran said. “However, implementing a regulation that restricts schools and impairs childhood nutrition is not the answer. We applaud the U.S.D.A. for recognizing the need to allow schools greater opportunity to provide adequate nutrition to their students.”

While the guidance itself addressed only concerns expressed by school food authorities, it was issued at a time the U.S.D.A. was under increasing pressure from members of Congress who pointed to complaints about the new school meal standards they’ve heard from schools, teachers, parents and students, some of which went beyond those addressed in the guidance.

Eleven U.S. senators, four Democrats and seven Republicans, on Nov. 19 sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack asserting the new school lunch meal standards “lacked the flexibility necessary to meet the nutrition needs of many growing boys and girls.”

The senators asked whether it was appropriate to restrict students’ calorie intake without consideration for gender, height, weight or level of physical activity. The senators also challenged the limits on protein as being too low, particularly in the case of students “involved in a rigorous school-sponsored sports program.” And they pointed to the financial burden they said the new standards imposed on school districts, particularly those in rural and poor areas.

Mr. Vilsack responded to the senators’ concerns in a letter sent on Dec. 7, the day the F.N.S. guidance was issued.

Mr. Vilsack said flexibility with regard to the grains and meat/meat alternates “is being provided to allow more time for the development of products that fit within the new standards while granting schools additional weekly menu planning options to help ensure that children receive a wholesome, nutritious meal every day of the week.”

In response to other concerns voiced by the senators, Mr. Vilsack pointed to currently available options to address potential additional challenges such as feeding very active students.

“Parents, individual students and/or sports teams can supplement the taxpayer-subsidized meals with items provided from home or other sources,” he said.

Mr. Vilsack said federally subsidized school meals were designed to meet only a portion of a child’s nutritional needs over the course of a day.

Mr. Vilsack said the U.S.D.A. is “acutely aware” of the financial challenges many schools face in putting together healthy school meals on a budget.

“That is why more than $3 billion in new resources was provided through the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (H.H.F.K.A.) to support an additional 6c per lunch reimbursement,” he said. “In addition, $50 million was also provided by the H.H.F.K.A. for each year of fiscal years 2012 and 2013 for U.S.D.A. and states to offer technical assistance in support of the new requirements. Finally, the H.H.F.K.A. sets common sense business standards that complement the federal resources involved in this act in order to ensure that enough revenue is being brought to cover the cost of producing healthy school meals. When taken together, these additional resources should provide enough revenue for schools to meet the new meal requirements.”