Friday, December 07, 2012

Agriculture Department To Allow 'Flexibility' In School Lunch Program: More Meat, More Grains

Sec. Vilsack announces change in response to ongoing criticism...

By Jerry Hagstrom
Crossposted from The Hagstrom Report

Reacting to complaints from Members of Congress and some school food directors and students, the Agriculture Department has decided to allow schools to serve more grains and meat or meat alternatives and still be in compliance with the regulations of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act 2010, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a letter to Congress sent on Friday.  The school lunch legislation was championed by First Lady Michelle Obama as a centerpiece of the Let's Move! campaign, and the updated, mandated nutrition guidelines went into effect at the beginning of this school year.

"We always anticipated that some modifications and other allowances would be required for changes of this size and scope,” Vilsack wrote to Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND), who sent a letter to the Secretary complaining that the guidelines are too strict.

"USDA has asked for, and states and schools have provided us with, valuable feedback," Vilsack said. "As a result, you should be pleased to know that we have recently moved to allow for additional flexibility in meeting some of the new standards."

"For example, the top operational challenge that states and schools have reported is in serving meals that fit within the weekly minimum and maximum serving ranges for the grains and meat/meat alternate portions of the standards. To help schools make a successful transition to the new requirements, we have provided additional flexibility in meeting the requirements for these components. If a school is meeting just the minimum serving requirements for these two food groups, they will be considered in compliance with that portion of the standards, regardless of whether they have exceeded the maximum."

Vilsack added, "This flexibility 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."

The Secretary hinted that there could be further changes coming to the National School Lunch Program, which feeds about 32 million children in close to 100,000 institutions.

"These actions are by no means exhaustive.  Implementation is a process that takes time, and as the school year progresses we will continue listening and providing education, technical assistance, and flexibilities where appropriate," he said.

Vilsack noted that the regulations were written to try to address childhood obesity and promote good nutrition. The latest government statistics place the child obesity rate at about 17% nationally, with one in three children being identified as overweight or obese.  The school nutrition standards "are just one part of a comprehensive effort taking place across the Federal government to address childhood obesity - a national epidemic with significant health and economic consequences for our country," Vilsack said. 

Mrs. Obama's Let's Move! campaign coordinates the anti-obesity efforts of at least thirteen  federal agencies, including Treasury; Defense; Health and Human Services; Housing and Urban Development; Interior; and Education.

In response to concerns about the minimum and maximum calorie requirements included in the legislation, which set standards according to grade level, Vilsack pointed out that during the school day foods are available to students outside the National School Lunch Program.  

"Students are always permitted to purchase as much additional food a la carte as they want," Vilsack said.  "Schools can also make larger portions of furits and vegetables (or even milk) available at lunch and structure afterschool snack and supper programs to provide additional foods for those who need them.  Many schools have previously found success with parent or school-run booster clubs providing afterschool snacks and may opt to continue or even expand this practice."   

USDA has not yet issued the guidelines required under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act for 'competitive foods' sold in a la carte lines and vending machines at schools. 

The Hagstrom Report obtained a copy of the letter and a USDA source said that it had been sent on Friday to Hoeven and other Members of Congress who had written to complain that the new school lunch standards are too strict.

*Secretary Vilsack's letter [PDF]

*USDA's webpages devoted to school lunch guidelines:  The School Day Just Got Healthier

*Information: The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act 2010

Jerry Hagstrom, founder and editor of the best online, subscription-only agriculture and policy newssite The Hagstrom Report, cross-posts at Obama Foodorama.  If you're not a subscriber to The Hagstrom Report, you're missing crucial coverage.
*Photo by Lawrence Jackson/White House