USDA Easing of School Meal Rules Sparks Conflicting Views

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By Teaganne Finn

Agriculture industry groups are at odds over the Department of Agriculture’s decision to publish an interim final rule that would ease whole grain and sodium requirements, along with allowing 1 percent flavored milk in school meals.

The USDA published the new School Meal Flexibility Rule (RIN 0584-AE53) on Nov. 29 to make changes to standards for meals provided under USDA’s National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program. The rule will give schools flexibility in meeting the whole-grain product requirements and allow schools that hit the sodium reduction limit for 2014 to be considered compliant with requirements. Additionally, schools will be allowed to serve 1 percent flavored milk.

“This move is an unnecessary threat to children’s health,” Kelly Toups, director of nutrition at Oldways Whole Grains Council, told Bloomberg Government.

The measure reflects the USDA’s Regulatory Reform Agenda developed in response to President Donald Trump’s executive order to alleviate regulatory burdens. The interim final rule was published in the Federal Register and will be effective for the 2018-2019 school year.

“It doesn’t do any good to serve nutritious meals if they wind up in the trash can. These flexibilities give schools the local control they need to provide nutritious meals that school children find appetizing,” said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in a press release.

Toups says despite Secretary Perdue’s comments, students today are eating and enjoying whole grain foods. “Relaxing nutrition guidelines that are already being met is a pointless exercise,” she said.

Dairy Industry Support

However, the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) supports the USDA’s decision because it saw a decline in milk consumption in schools when flavored, low-fat milk was removed from the lunch program in 2011.

The NMPF lobbied for the changes, Chris Galen, senior vice president of communications, told Bloomberg Government. “We asked USDA to reconsider its policy.”

The organization has spent $550,000 lobbying on issues including agriculture, in the first three quarters of 2017, according to data compiled by Bloomberg Government analysts.

“Secretary Perdue’s willingness to provide greater flexibility to schools recognizes that a variety of milks and other healthy dairy foods is critically important to improving the nutritional contributions of child nutrition programs in schools,” said Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF).

Galen also told Bloomberg Government that NMPF lobbied for the School Milk Nutrition Act of 2017 (H.R. 4101), co-sponsored by Reps. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) and Joe Courtney (D-Conn.). The bill would have lifted regulations that currently only allow fat-free or low-fat plain milk, or fat-free flavored milk, in school cafeterias.

To contact the reporter on this story: Teaganne Finn in Washington at tfinn@bgov.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com

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