Final Rule On School Food Values Choice Over Children’s Health

Marybeth Whalen, Foodservice Director for the Lower Kuskokwim School District in Bethel, Alaska, is in the business of feeding children. Her district of approximately 4300 students falls under the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which means enough families in the district qualify for free breakfast and lunch that they offer universal free feeding at each of her 28 school sites spread out over a geographical area roughly the size of West Virginia, many of which are accessible only by boat or plane for much of the year. She has the challenging job of figuring out how to get food to these schools that the highest percentage of kids will like while maintaining federal nutrition guidelines.

Yesterday, the USDA Food and Nutrition Service officially published their final rule on school meals, changing the way Whalen and her colleagues across America will build school menus in the future.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue called the rollback in regulations (part of President Trump’s larger plan to remove unnecessary regulations from government) “common sense flexibilities” in last week’s press release announcing the final rule. The USDA claims that schools are having trouble serving meals that kids will actually eat within the current guidelines, which were rolled out in 2012. Over the past week however, there has been extensive debate about the effects of the final rule on children’s health and the big business of school food. School Nutrition Association applauds final rule, calling it a “healthy balance”  between childhood nutrition needs and availability of healthy ingredients for school districts around the country. The whole grains council called the rule “disconcerting,” and a departure from accepted nutrition standards.

According to the USDA, The Child Nutrition Programs: Flexibilities for Milk, Whole Grains, and Sodium Requirements final rule offers schools new options as they serve meals under the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), School Breakfast Program (SBP) and other federal child nutrition programs.  The rule:

  • Provides the option to offer flavored, low-fat milk to children participating in school meal programs, and to participants ages six and older in the Special Milk Program for Children (SMP) and the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP);
  • Requires half of the weekly grains in the school lunch and breakfast menu be whole grain-rich; and
  • Provides more time to reduce sodium levels in school meals.

Previously, schools were required to serve 100% whole grain rich foods. This meant that 51% of the grains used in any product needed to be whole. The rule not only allows more time to reduce sodium levels in school meals, if eliminates the third sodium level target prescribed in the originally mandated step down plan.