AHA: Changes to school lunch requirements reverse progress

An interim final rule issued Nov. 29 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will allow schools to serve low-fat, flavored milk and ease requirements for sodium reduction and whole-grain offerings beginning with the 2018-19 school year.

“Schools need flexibility in menu planning so they can serve nutritious and appealing meals,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a statement. “Based on the feedback we’ve gotten from students, schools, and food service professionals in local schools across America, it’s clear that many still face challenges incorporating some of the meal pattern requirements. Schools want to offer food that students actually want to eat. It doesn’t do any good to serve nutritious meals if they wind up in the trash can.”

The rule could stall or reverse the progress of Obama era requirements that cut the maximum sodium allowance for meals in elementary, middle and high schools, said Nancy Brown, the CEO of the American Heart Association. She disputed the notion that schools are struggling to meet the requirements.

“In the last five years, nearly 100 percent of the nation’s participating schools have complied with updated school meal standards,” Brown said in a press release. “Kids across the country have clearly benefited from these changes. Their meals have less salt, sugar and saturated fat, and they eat 16 percent more vegetables and 23 percent more fruit. Why would the USDA want to roll back the current standards and reverse this excellent progress?”

Brown applauded the “many schools” that have publicly declared they would stick with the old standards.

Currently, schools are allowed to serve only nonfat flavored milk (such as chocolate), nonfat unflavored milk and low-fat unflavored milk. Not surprisingly, the USDA’s decision to add 1-percent-fat flavored milk to the menu was met with approval from the dairy industry.

“Today’s action will help reverse declining milk consumption by allowing schools to provide kids with access to a variety of milk options, including the flavored milks they enjoy,” said Michael Dykes, president and CEO of the International Dairy Foods Association.

The interim final rule will take effect July 1, 2018, for the 2018-19 school year. An open comment period lasts until Jan. 29 and could inform the development of the final rule for future years, the USDA said.