The USDA will provide greater flexibility for school nutrition.

WASHINGTON – Secretary of Agriculture George E. (Sonny) Perdue on May 1 announced that the US Dept. of Agriculture will provide greater flexibility for schools in meeting nutrition requirements for school meal programs in order to make food choices both healthful and more appealing to students. Perdue made the announcement during a visit to Catoctin Elementary School in Leesburg, Virginia, to mark School Nutrition Employee Week. Perdue signed a proclamation that began the process of restoring local control of guidelines on whole grains, sodium, and milk.

“This announcement is the result of years of feedback from students, schools, and foodservice experts about the challenges they are facing in meeting the final regulations for school meals,” Perdue said. “If kids aren’t eating the food, and it’s ending up in the trash, they aren’t getting any nutrition — thus undermining the intent of the program.”

The secretary acknowledged schools are experiencing difficulties in finding the full range of products they need to meet current whole grain requirements for school meals. Perdue said the USDA now will allow states to grant exemptions to schools experiencing hardship in serving 100 percent of grain products as whole-grain rich for the 2017-18 school year. The proclamation said the USDA will take all necessary regulatory actions to implement a long-term solution.

For school years beginning with 2017-18 and continuing through 2020-21, schools will not be required to meet Sodium Target 2. Instead, schools that meet Sodium Target 1 will be considered compliant with the nutrition standards.

 Sonny Perdue
Secretary of Agriculture George E. (Sonny) Perdue

The USDA said the new timeframe will provide schools and the school nutrition industry with the certainty and predictability they need to create foods with the appropriate amount of sodium.  Also during this period, the department will take all necessary regulatory actions to implement a long-term solution for sodium content in school meals.

The proclamation said the USDA 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.

Perdue also said the USDA will provide schools with more options for students who select milk as part of their lunch or breakfast. Schools will have the discretion to serve flavored, 1 percent-fat milk as part of school meals programs.  The USDA will seek to publish an interim rule as soon as possible to effect the change in milk policy.

“I have 14 grandchildren, and there is no way that I would propose something if I didn’t think it was good, healthful, and the right thing to do,” Perdue said.  “And here’s the thing about local control. It means that this new flexibility will give schools and states the option of doing what we’re laying out here today. These are not mandates on schools.”

Patricia Montague, CEO, School Nutrition Association, said, “I commend Secretary Perdue for taking this important step. We have been wanting flexibility so that schools can serve meals that are both nutritious and palatable. We don’t want kids wasting their meals by throwing them away. Some of our schools are actually using that food waste as compost. That shouldn’t be happening."