USDA Offers Flexibility on School Lunch Mandates

Image: USDA Offers Flexibility on School Lunch Mandates

Wednesday, 21 May 2014 10:32 AM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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The Department of Agriculture said it is granting some schools extra flexibility to comply with federal regulations on school lunches, one day after House Republicans introduced a bill to roll back some of the department's regulations.

Schools have raised "legitimate concerns" that they are not able to find acceptable products that meet the guidelines of being at least half whole grain items, The Weekly Standard reported.

"We worked to find a solution which will allow more time for industry to develop products that will work for schools," Kevin Concannon, an undersecretary for the department, said in a USDA press release.

Schools that demonstrate challenges in finding suitable whole-grain rich pastas will be able to keep serving traditional pasta products for up to two more years, giving industry time to develop more healthy pasta that will hold up while schools make them in mass quantities.

Meanwhile, the Republican legislation goes even further, allowing schools experiencing financial losses over six months to apply for complete waivers from the USDA program.

The USDA said that more than 90 percent of the nation's schools report they are meeting the nutrition standards, and most schools saw their net revenues rise within the first year of implementing the new rules and providing children with more nutritious meals.

However, the School Nutrition Association says that almost half of school meal programs reported declines in revenue in the 2012-13 school year and 90 percent said food costs were up.

The USDA said that it will work with manufacturers as they expand the selection of suitable whole-grain rich pastas available to schools, and its Food and Nutrition Service will help develop technical resources to help with preparation methods.

Michelle Obama, who champions the new USDA rules as part of her "Let's Move" campaign, vowed on a private conference call to fight back against the Republican proposal, The Washington Post reported.

“I was thrilled that the first lady pulled advocates together this morning and sounded such a strong rallying cry to fight back against efforts to weaken the school food standards,” said Margo Wootan, who lobbies on Capitol Hill and elsewhere on behalf of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, according to the Post.

While Obama's remarks were meant to be kept off the record, Wootan and others discussed them with reporters, saying they found her comments encouraging.

Obama, during the conference call, also encouraged health activists to keep fighting against lobbying efforts to allow schools to opt out of the federal nutrition mandates, which include reducing sodium and fat while increasing whole grains, fresh fruits, and vegetables.

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