Jay Sjerven

Secretary of Agriculture George E. (Sonny) Perdue on May 1 announced the U.S. Department of Agriculture will provide school districts greater flexibility in meeting the nutrition standards for school meals required under the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Specifically, Mr. Perdue relaxed the requirement that 100% of grains served as part of school meals during the 2017-18 school year be whole grain-rich, delayed the requirement that school meals comply with the more stringent Target 2 sodium limits until after 2020, and indicated 1%-fat flavored milk again may be served in school cafeterias.

Mr. Perdue said the U.S.D.A. will allow states to grant exemptions to schools experiencing hardship in serving 100% of grain products as whole grain-rich for the upcoming school year. The U.S.D.A. indicated it will take all necessary actions to implement a long-term solution to the problems many schools have encountered in trying to comply with this standard, which came into force with the 2014-15 school year.

Mr. Perdue directed that for school years 2017-18 through 2019-2020, schools will not be required to meet sodium limits established for Sodium Target 2. Instead, schools that meet Sodium Target 1 requirements will be considered compliant.

School lunch tray
The U.S.D.A. will allow states to grant exemptions to schools experiencing hardship in serving 100% of grain products as whole grain-rich for the upcoming school year.

The U.S.D.A. said the expanded timeframe will provide schools and the school nutrition industry with the certainty and predictability they need to make plans for creating foods with the appropriate amount of sodium. The U.S.D.A. said during the period, it will take all necessary regulatory actions to implement a long-term solution. The U.S.D.A. said further it will dedicate significant resources to providing technical assistance to schools as they continue to develop menus that are low in sodium and appealing to students.

Mr. Perdue said it was important to provide more options for students who select milk as a part of their lunch or breakfast. To that end, the U.S.D.A. will begin the regulatory process to enable schools to serve 1%-fat flavored milk. The department said it will seek to publish an interim rule as soon as possible to effect the change in milk policy.

The food industry was generally supportive of the adjustments announced by Mr. Perdue.

Jim Mulhern, president and chief executive officer of the National Milk Producers Federation, said, “In just the first two years after low-fat flavored milk was removed from the program, 1.1 million fewer school students drank milk with their lunch. Secretary Perdue’s action today recognizes that a variety of milks and other healthy dairy foods are integral to child nutrition programs in schools.”

Lee Sanders, senior vice-president, government relations and public affairs, American Bakers Association, told Food Business News with regard to the whole grains standard for school meals, “A.B.A. is pleased to see that Secretary Perdue is reviewing compliance hurdles that schools are experiencing and allowing flexibility as the agency reviews the school meals policy.”

Ms. Sanders suggested the school lunch standards should take more into account than the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommends six servings of grains daily with at least half being whole grains and the other half enriched grains.

Ms. Sanders said Mr. Perdue’s announcement with regard to sodium reduction targets in the school nutrition standards also was appropriate given the Institute of Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently are reviewing the Daily Reference Intake (D.R.I.) for sodium.

On Capitol Hill, the secretary’s announcement was praised by those members of the Senate and House of Representatives who in recent years sought to secure more flexibility for school districts in implementing the school lunch program nutrition standards and lambasted by those who champion those standards and the plan to strengthen them in coming years.

Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, said, “The policies that Secretary Perdue has declared here today will provide the flexibility to ensure that schools are able to serve nutritious meals that children actually eat.”

Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, ranking member of the nutrition subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture, said, “Every day school meals help ensure millions of kids get the healthy food they need to learn and succeed. It is outrageous that President Trump and his administration are now pushing a policy that weakens the essential nutrition standards which have strengthened access to healthy food for so many students … We should build on the progress we’ve made, not turn our backs on kids who rely on these meals. This isn’t about flexibility, it’s about making kids less healthy.”