USDA to permanently allow some flexibility in school lunches

By: Jason Tarr Email
By: Jason Tarr Email

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WICHITA, Kan. -- Some students, parents and school administrators are hailing a U.S. Department of Agriculture announcement this week as a victory when it comes to their push back against relatively new school lunch restrictions.

The USDA announced late Thursday that it will permanently ease up on some of the restrictions it had placed on what makes up a school lunch meal.

Calorie restrictions remain in place. But gone are the daily and weekly maximum and minimum amounts of grains and meat or meal alternatives. That means schools have more options when it comes to what they feed students at lunchtime.

About 31 million children in the United States receive the free or low-cost school lunches.

"This, I think, is a positive, especially for our school food service professionals who are planning meals," said Cheryl Johnson, Director of the Child Nutrition and Wellness team at the Kansas Department of Education. "It does make it easier for them with meal planning to incorporate some of the favorite items that students like."

The news also is welcomed by some congressional leaders who had introduced a bill to make the change permanent.

The lunch rules initially were put into place in 2012 as part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The idea was to limit fat and salt intake, reduce portion sizes, and increase fruit and vegetable servings. Calories were capped depending on a students' grade level.

Many students, parents, and even some school administrators then complained the lunches were not filling or appetizing.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture first loosened the rules in late 2012. It was at that time, they suspended the daily and weekly minimums and maximums for grains and proteins.

"The USDA realized that people had some concerns and they looked to see what they could do that was still within the law that could help," Johnson said.

Vicki Hoffman, Nutrition Services Director for Wichita's public schools, says it doesn't change the way they're doing things in USD 259. That's because they've utilized the meal flexibility since the rules were loosened at the end of 2012.

"We like this relaxing of rules because it let's us continue to make choices available to students," Hoffman said.

Hoffman says she and other schools leaders were at a conference July 2013 and heard the USDA Deputy Under Secretary say the flexibility would be permanent. So, Thursday's announcement did not come as any surprise.

"It just allows us to breathe a little easier and know that the track we were on is the track we will stay on," Hoffman said. "We are beginning menu planning for the 2014-2015 school year. So, we are confident that we are ready to go and that we know what will happen in the future."

There are some additional changes ahead for schools as the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act continues to be implemented.

Those include the Smart Snacks in Schools Rule that will take effect July 1, 2014. Under that rule, there will be requirements on all foods sold on the school campus during the school day. They will need to meet certain nutritional guidelines, Johnson said.

Also, there will be certain food safety training requirements for school nutrition professionals, Johnson said.

All in all, she says, schools have come a long way, especially in Kansas.

"Of Kansas schools, 95 percent are certified in meeting the new nutrition standards," Johnson said. "School service professionals have worked diligently. We do think it is creating a healthier meal time for students."

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