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Agriculture Department Revises School Meal Rules Championed by Michelle Obama

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture published revised school meal rules Wednesday, locking in a pledge Secretary Sonny Perdue made in May to ease heightened nutrition standards championed by former first lady Michelle Obama.

Child nutrition advocates had said those rules were necessary to curb growing rates of childhood obesity. But some, including industry groups representing school nutrition professionals, said the regulations were costly to follow and that students weren't eating the healthier meals.

"It doesn't do any good to serve nutritious meals if they wind up in the trash can," Perdue said in a statement. "These flexibilities give schools the local control they need to provide nutritious meals that school children find appetizing."

The interim final rule includes these changes:

  • Schools can serve 1 percent flavored milk. Under the previous rule, flavored milk had to be non-fat.
  • States can grant exemptions from whole-grain rich food requirements for schools that struggle to find compliant products, like pastas.
  • Schools can continue to serve meals that fall under current sodium restrictions throughout the 2018-19 school year. Those restrictions were previously scheduled to be lowered, further limiting the amount of salt that could be used in school meals.

The School Nutrition Association, an industry group, praised the changes and said it is assembling a working group to recommend even more rollbacks.

The Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a group that has championed the rules, said in a statement that the eased restrictions aren't necessary because most schools were already meeting the heightened requirements.

"Every child deserves a healthy future—now is not the time to reverse progress toward that reality," the organization said. "Instead of lowering standards, we need to provide additional training and resources to the minority of schools that have difficulty meeting sodium targets and whole grain requirements. Schools need our support to continue offering meals that keep kids healthy, an investment in our children's health that will best prepare the next generation for success."

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