USDA Relaxes School Meals Nutrition Rules

Sonny PeredueNewly confirmed U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced an interim final rule on Monday (May 1) that postpones further sodium reductions in school meals for at least three years, allows schools to serve 1 percent flavored milk, and gives states authority to exempt schools from having to replace all their grain-based products with whole-grain-rich products.

During a visit to a Leesburg, Virginia elementary school to mark School Nutrition Employee Week, Perdue signed a proclamation which he said begins the process of restoring local control of guidelines on whole grains, sodium, and milk.  Perdue says the new rule is needed to give schools more flexibility in meeting the strict standards.  Others see the measures as an attempt to roll back healthy school lunch standards promoted by former first lady Michelle Obama.

The specific flexibilities granted are:

  • Whole grains:

    • USDA will allow states to grant exemptions to schools experiencing hardship in serving 100 percent of grain products as whole-grain rich for School Year 2017-2018. USDA will take all necessary regulatory actions to implement a long-term solution.

Rationale: Schools have complained they are experiencing challenges in finding the full range of products they need and that their students enjoy or find acceptable in whole grain-rich form. Schools have argued they need continued flexibility in meeting the whole grain requirements for school meals.

  • Sodium:
    • For School Years 2017-2018 through 2019-2020, schools will not be required to meet Sodium Target 2. Instead, schools that meet Sodium Target 1 will be considered compliant.  (Currently, sodium levels in school lunches must average less than 1,230 milligrams in elementary schools; 1,360 mg in middle schools; and 1,420 mg in high school.  Before Perdue’s new proclamation, schools were expected to reduce sodium even further to average less than 935 milligrams in elementary schools, 1035 milligrams in middle school lunches and 1,080 in high school lunches by the week by July 1, 2017.  Further reductions were set to take effect by July 1, 2022.)

      : This adjusted time frame will provide schools and the school nutrition industry with predictability needed to create foods with the appropriate amount of sodium. During this period, USDA will take all necessary regulatory actions to implement a long-term solution.
    • USDA indicates it will dedicate significant resources to providing technical assistance to schools as they continue to develop menus that are low in sodium and appealing to students.
  • Milk:

    • Perdue has directed USDA to begin the regulatory process for schools to serve 1 percent flavored milk through the school meals programs. USDA will seek to publish an interim rule as soon as possible to effect the change in milk policy.

      : Milk is a key component of school meals, meaning schools need more options for students who select milk as part of their lunch or breakfast.

The USDA argues that schools have been facing increasing fiscal burdens as they attempt to adhere to existing nutrition requirements.  According to USDA figures, school food requirements cost school districts and states an additional $1.22 billion in Fiscal Year 2015.  At the same time costs are going up, states are reporting that they’ve seen a decrease in student participation in school lunches, as nation-wide about one million students choose not to have a school lunch each day.  This impacts schools in two ways: The decline in school lunch participation means reduced revenue to schools while they simultaneously are encountering increased costs. (See USDA news release.)