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School Lunch Rules Bent to Allow More Grain, Protein—But Not Calories

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Caps on the amount of grain and protein in school meals—put in place just this school year—have been lifted for now.

In a letter Friday to Republican U.S. Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that because schools have found limits on servings of grains and proteins "the top operational challenge" of new school meal requirements, schools don't have to follow them for the rest of the school year.

The rules, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture was authorized to write thanks to 2010's Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, limited schools' ability to serve as much of what they wanted. For example, elementary schools that wanted to serve sandwiches every day could not because they would exceed caps on how many servings of grains students may have per week. Serving cheeseburgers every day would also be problematic because the cheese, a meat alternative and a source of protein, could lead schools to exceed caps, too.

"To help schools make a successful transition to the new requirements, we have provided additional flexibility in meeting the requirements for these components," Vilsack wrote. "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."

The USDA finalized nutrition standards for school breakfasts and lunches in January, and they took effect at the start of the 2012-13 school year. The new rules boost the amount of fruits and vegetables students must be served, require bread products to contain whole grains, limit milk to low-fat and fat-free varieties, cut sodium and fat, and for the first time, set both minimum and maximum calorie requirements for meals.

Once the school year began, criticism about the new rules quickly followed, with students complaining the new meals were too small. Earlier, Vilsack had said for students who are particularly active and require more calories—only a small percentage of public school students—they could buy additional food from a la carte lunch lines, bring additional food from home, or parents and other groups could supplement meals subsidized by federal tax dollars.

"This should come as no surprise," Vilsack wrote in Friday's letter, "students never have and never will get all of their daily dietary needs from a single meal. School breakfasts and lunches are designed to meet roughly one-fourth and one-third, respectively, of the daily calorie needs of children."

On Saturday, Hoeven said he and other lawmakers will continue to push for the caps on grain and protein servings to be made permanent.

Vilsack was responding to a letter from Hoeven, U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Arkansas, and other senators from agricultural states: James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma; Kent Conrad, D-North Dakota; Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming; John Tester, D-Montana; John Thune, R-South Dakota; John Barrasso, R-Wyoming; Jerry Moran, R-Kansas; Dan Coates, R-Indiana; and Tim Johnson, D-South Dakota.

In a press release, Hoeven said he and other senators felt the new rule "adopted a one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition, leaving some students hungry and some school districts frustrated with the additional expense, paperwork and nutritional research necessary to meet federal requirements. ... Moreover, [districts] said it may be difficult for all students to get adequate protein to feel full throughout the school day. Protein is an important nutrient for growing children."

The School Nutrition Association welcomed the shift, said its president, Sandra Ford, noting the difficulty schools have faced in planning meals under the new requirements.

"School nutrition professionals have faced significant menu-planning, operating, financial challenges and more as a result of the new meal pattern requirements. USDA's new guidance acknowledges those challenges and gives school meal programs more flexibility," she said. "By easing weekly maximums for grains and proteins but maintaining calorie limits, USDA protects the nutritional integrity of the new standards while giving school meal programs more time to design healthy menus that meet both the new standards and students' tastes."

An adjustment period as the new rules take effect was to be expected, said Erik Olson, the director of food programs for the Pew Health Group. School meal rules hadn't changed since 1995.

"We're not surprised that there have been some challenges in implementation here," he said, and the adjustment shows that USDA is listening to schools. And with more flexibility, school lunches may be more appealing to some students, encouraging them to eat them.

Now, however, it's time for the agency to stop dragging its feet on regulating another aspect of school food: what's sold in school vending machines, a la carte lines, and in school stores. USDA has this power, but has said for months it needs more time to devise proposed rules.

"The department really needs to move forward with the rest of the package to make sure snack foods are also covered," Olson said. "All food needs to be healthful."

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