The change the Department of Agriculture announced Thursday night represents one of the rarest of moments: a new rule related to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act that will not result in a brawl between the food industry and consumer advocacy groups.
As soon as Friday, USDA is expected to publish in the Federal Register its plans to make permanent a one-year-old interim rule that allows schools more flexibility in serving larger portions of lean protein and whole grains. USDA says the change was called for in many of the 173 comments it received on the interim rule, including those from school food authorities.
The 2010 law, passed when Democrats controlled both the House and Senate, updated lunch standards by requiring schools to maintain minimum and maximum calorie levels that vary by grade level, in addition to serving requirements for grains, meat/meat alternates, vegetables, fruits and milk. The law was aimed at increasing healthy foods while cutting back on sodium, sugar and fats.
But it set off a firestorm of complaints from students, parents, food industry officials and lawmakers, even leading to threatened legislation. USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, in December 2012, responded by temporarily waiving the limits on meats and grains. The steps taken this week cement that action.
“Earlier this school year, USDA made a commitment to school nutrition professionals that we would make the meat and grain flexibility permanent and provide needed stability for long-term planning. We have delivered on that promise,” said Agriculture Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon in a statement Thursday.
As long as overall standards are maintained, Jessica Donze Black, director of the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project for the Pew Charitable Trusts, is OK with the change.
The 2010 law has been divisive from the beginning, but on this specific provision there was a general consensus, said Black, whose group is one that might have been expected to object.
“There’s no group that I know of that’s opposed to lifting it,” she said. “It was probably just more detail than was necessary. It doesn’t need a legislative fix, and now everyone can move forward.”
Black doesn’t expect a legal challenge to the USDA action, because the specific limits of the rule were not set by the legislation itself, but by the agency’s rule making process.
USDA’s announcement comes after Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) recently brought attention to the issue by introducing the Reducing Federal Mandates on School Lunch Act, which would have eliminated the meat and grain caps. In a previous interview with POLITICO, Noem had said she introduced the bill after hearing about hungry students and financially strapped school districts from school nutritionists and her constituents.
Noem is pleased with USDA’s actions, but she still thinks legislation is necessary.
“Making sure our kids are healthy is a top priority, but making sure they don’t go hungry is critical as well,” she said in an email sent Thursday night. “The USDA’s announcement today comes after a tremendous amount of pressure from parents, school administrators, and Congress. What they are offering is a step in the right direction and adopts some of the provisions offered in my bill to give relief. A more permanent legislative fix and even greater flexibility is still needed, however, in order to give parents and school administrators the tools they need when planning our kids’ lunch programs.”
Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), who along with Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) introduced similar legislation in 2012, said in a statement issued Thursday he was glad USDA listened to the concerns and responded.
“A one-size-fits-all approach to school lunch left students hungry and school districts frustrated with the additional expense, paperwork and nutritional research necessary to meet federal requirements,” he said.
The School Nutrition Association, which represents school nutrition professionals, also praised the department for cementing the change.
“School Nutrition Association members are pleased that USDA has provided this permanent fix, acknowledging the need for greater flexibility in planning well balanced school meals,” said SNA President Leah Schmidt.
“With school nutrition professionals already planning menus and inventory for the 2014-2015 school year, eliminating the grain and protein limits is a key step to providing healthy menus that appeal to students.”