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USDA Permanently Relaxes School Lunch Rules on Meat, Grain Serving Limits

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture published a rule Friday that permanently eases restrictions on the amount of grain and protein that school cafeterias participating in the National School Lunch Program are allowed to serve their students in a week.

The agency first relaxed those requirements—drafted under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010—on a temporary basis in April 2012 after food-service directors complained they were difficult to implement. Cafeterias with multiple food choices could exceed grain limits by offering daily sandwich items in one of their lines, they said, and a salad topped with chicken and grated cheese would exceed protein limits.

The now permanently relaxed rules remove maximum limits on grain and protein servings. Schools are considered compliant if they meet minimum serving requirements in those areas and don't exceed overall calorie caps. 

In another sign that "all politics is local," what's happened in school cafeterias around the country has quickly made its way into congressional discussions, and school lunch standards have been a frequent target of federal lawmakers. Many bills took aim at the grain and protein requirements that have been permanently altered under Friday's rule.

"While this flexibility has been available to schools on a temporary basis since 2012, making it permanent provides schools and industry with needed stability for long-term planning," Janey Thornton, USDA's deputy under secretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services, said in a blog post announcing the changes.

The School Nutrition Association, which represents 55,000 school nutrition professionals across the country, quickly praised the permanent change in a statement posted on its website:

"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. "With school nutrition professionals already planning menus and inventory for the 2014-15 school year, eliminating the grain and protein limits is a key step to providing healthy menus that appeal to students."

Photo: Students pick up their lunch at Barre Town Elementary School in Barre Town, Vt., in September. -Toby Talbot/AP-File

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