Thursday, January 02, 2014

Agriculture Department Announces Permanent Change For National School Lunch Program

Responding to complaints, Agency gets rid of weekly limits on servings of whole grain and lean proteins; frozen fruit with added sugar gets a permanent place on school breakfast and lunch menus...
Washington, DC -  Millions of school children will be offered heartier school lunches next Fall when the 2014 academic year begins, thanks to a Department of Agriculture-mandated change to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids' Act 2010, the sweeping school nutrition law that is the legislative centerpiece of First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign.

There will no longer be weekly limits on the number of servings of lean protein (meat and meat alternates, such as tofu) and whole grains in meals offered in the National School Lunch Program, the Department of Agriculture announced on Tuesday.  

And frozen fruit containing added sugar will be a permanent part of school lunch menus, as well as served in the federally funded School Breakfast Program.  Previously announced calorie restrictions remain intact, however, designed to make the school meals program a tool to combat child obesity.

The agency is making permanent an easing of restrictions first announced in December of 2012 for the 2013-14 school year, said Kevin Concannon, Agriculture Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Service.  The final rule will be published in the Federal Register on Jan. 3rd. 

USDA originally relaxed the restrictions on weekly servings of protein and grain in response to complaints from Members of Congress, parents, children, and school nutrition professionals, who claimed that kids were going hungry thanks to the restrictions on servings.  

Prior to the change, "many schools could not offer daily sandwich choices because serving two slices of whole-grain bread each day exceeded weekly grain limits, and salads topped with grilled chicken and low fat cheese surpassed weekly protein limits," the School Nutrition Association (SNA), the largest organization representing cafeteria professionals, said in a statement about USDA's final rule.

"These changes prompted complaints from some students concerned that school meals were no longer adequate to keep hunger at bay, and led many families to start packing lunch for their students." 

Among the lawmakers irate with the restrictions were Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark), Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman, and Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND), who co-authored the Sensible School Lunch Act, designed to change the standard.  

They issued a joint statement about USDA's permanent rule change.

"After hearing from educators, parents, and students, Sen. Hoeven and I stepped in to help school districts who were frustrated with the National School Lunch and Breakfast Program’s strict new rules," Pryor said. 

"I’m glad the USDA followed our lead and made these much-needed administrative changes that will give our school districts the permanent flexibility they need to keep our kids healthy and successful."

“Today, the USDA made the permanent changes we have been seeking to the School Lunch Program,” Hoeven said.  "A one-size-fits-all approach to school lunch left students hungry and school districts frustrated with the additional expense, paperwork and nutritional research necessary to meet federal requirements."

“These are exactly the changes included in our Sensible School Lunch Act,” he said.

SNA lobbied extensively for the change:  "Securing this reprieve became a primary focus of SNA’s 2013 advocacy efforts following negative impacts of weekly limits on meal planning and student participation," the organization said.   

SNA retained new legal counsel in July of last year to boost its lobbying efforts, engaging Barnes & Thornburg LLP one of Washington, DC's most aggressive "government relations" firms.

"Earlier this school year, USDA made a commitment to school nutrition professionals that we would make the meat and grain flexibility permanent and provide needed stability for long-term planning," said USDA's Concannon.   "We have delivered on that promise." 

"School Nutrition Association members are pleased that USDA has provided this permanent fix, acknowledging the need for greater flexibility in planning well balanced school meals," said SNA President Leah Schmidt, SNS.

Broader reductions in levels of salt and fat in school meals also remain mandated. 

Frozen fruit and sugar...
As for frozen fruit with added sugar becoming a permanent part of the school meal pattern:  USDA bowed to food corporations that provide product to the federally funded program.  The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act 2010 calls for children to be served fruits and vegetables with every lunch.

Food corporations complained that formulating frozen fruit without sugar is expensive and difficult, and also argued that added sugar is allowed in canned fruits served in school meals. 

"Reformulating some products has been challenging because sugar acts as an important ingredient in maintaining fruit flavor, appearance, texture and storability of certain frozen fruits. In addition, research on substitute sweeteners has not been successful in maintaining the color, flavor or texture of the fruit being tested," reads USDA's final rule in a defense of the decision.

Companies offering their products to the federal meals program compete for billions of dollars in annual government spending.  USDA made no mention of the frozen fruit mandate in its press release announcing the permanent rule for the grain and protein requirements. 

About 32 million children are fed through the National School Lunch Program, with about 21 million receiving free or reduced-price lunches in 99,824 public and private schools and institutions.  Let's Move! Executive Director Sam Kass has said that many children receive up to half their daily nutrition requirements from school meals.

More than 99.5% of schools participating in the National School Lunch Program have stuck with it despite the challenges of implementing the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act 2010, which first went into effect in Fall 2012.  USDA reported the figure in September of 2013.

Elements of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids' Act continue to be rolled out: The Smart Snacks in School rule will go into effect beginning in Fall 2014.  That part of the legislation covers foods sold in a la carte cafeteria lines, at school stores, and in vending machines.  The rule limits calories, fat, and salt, and mandates more whole grain.  Soda and certain sugar-sweetened beverages will no longer be available for purchase on school grounds.


*Photo at top:  Mrs. Obama had lunch with students at Parklawn Elementary School in Alexandria, VA, in January of 2012 to celebrate the healthier school standards.  Photo by Chuck Kennedy/White House.