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USDA Grants Flexibility in Meeting Its Whole-Grain Requirement

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture will give schools flexibility in implementing a new requirement for whole grains in school meals, the agency announced Tuesday.

Schools that can demonstrate "significant challenges" in serving whole-grain rich pastas will be able to continue serving enriched pasta products for up to two more years under the flexibility, according to an announcement by Kevin Concannon, under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services.

The relaxation in requirements comes one day after a congressional panel included plans to mandate waivers from some school nutrition standards for some schools in its budget bill.

The new whole-grain requirement is set to go into effect July 1, and some student nutrition workers have said they didn't have access to enough products to comply. 

"Schools raised legitimate concerns that acceptable whole-grain rich pasta products were not available. We worked to find a solution which will allow more time for industry to develop products that will work for schools," said Concannon in a statement. "We continue to listen and work closely with schools and parents to implement common sense nutritional guidance that supports a healthier next generation. But, with one third of American children fighting obesity, we cannot accept politically motivated efforts to undermine standards and deny kids healthier options."

School districts must win approval from their state student nutrition agency before using the flexibility, the USDA said in a release. The agency previously permanently relaxed other grain and protein requirements that were also implemented as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

Supporters of the standards, designed to curb childhood obesity, have said issues with implementation should be handled by the USDA through its process of drafting and revising policy, not through congressional intervention.

Supporters of the waiver proposal announced by House Republicans say that compliance is costly for many districts, and that many students are going hungry after rejecting the healthier meals. A Senate committee is expected to take up its own proposal that may require further relaxation of meal standards as soon as Thursday.

The discussion of congressional intervention has caused quite a stir. About 100 organizations signed onto a letter opposing the plan Monday, and, in a private conference call, First Lady Michelle Obama vowed to fight the effort, the Washington Post reported.

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