USDA today released details of a final rule on school meals that it says increases local flexibility in implementing nutrition standards for milk, whole grains, and sodium.

Agriculture Secretary Perdue said the rule will deliver on USDA’s promise, made in a May 2017 proclamation, to develop forward-thinking strategies that ensure school nutrition standards are both healthful and practical.

“USDA is committed to serving meals to kids that are both nutritious and satisfying,” Perdue said in a release. “These common-sense flexibilities provide excellent customer service to our local school nutrition professionals, while giving children the world-class food service they deserve.”

The department said the final rule – Child Nutrition Programs: Flexibilities for Milk, Whole Grains, and Sodium Requirements – offers schools new options as they serve meals under the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program 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 and the Child and Adult Care Food Program;
  • 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.

USDA said the rule will benefit nearly 99,000 schools and institutions that feed 30 million children annually through USDA’s school meal programs. It also said the rule is part of USDA’s Regulatory Reform Agenda, developed in response to President Donald Trump’s Executive Order to eliminate unnecessary regulatory burdens. The final rule is to be published next month in the Federal Register.

“We will continue to listen to schools, and make common-sense changes as needed, to ensure they can meet the needs of their students based on their real-world experience in local communities,” said Perdue.

The School Nutrition Association (SNA), which represents 58,000 school nutrition professionals across the country, commended USDA on the rule.

“This final rule strikes a healthy balance. Schools will continue to meet strong nutrition standards but can prepare meals that appeal to a wide range of students,” SNA President Gay Anderson said in a release.

SNA noted that despite extensive efforts to boost consumption of healthy school meals, student lunch participation has continued to decline since updated nutrition standards took effect. The pace and degree of menu changes under those changes “were more than some students would accept,” said Anderson.

“We appreciate Secretary Perdue for finding solutions to address the concerns of schools and students,” she said. “This rule will entice more students to eat healthy school meals, which meet calorie limits and offer fruits, vegetables and milk.”

The National Milk Producers Federation also applauded USDA’s actions.

“NMPF thanks Secretary Perdue for completing this step that will encourage milk consumption in schools,” said Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the NMPF. “USDA’s own studies have shown that students drank less milk after low-fat chocolate milk was removed from schools. Returning low-fat flavored milk to school menus will help reverse this harmful trend.”

The action was not unanimously praised, however. In a statement, Center for Science in the Public Interest Vice President for Nutrition Margo Wootan, said the action was "putting politics before children's health in ways worse than were expected." She said the sodium targets are already being met by "virtually all school districts."

"Instead of building on that progress, the administration has chosen to jeopardize children's health in the name of deregulation," Wootan said. "Parents will be disappointed when they learn that the meals served to their kids in school are under attack from President Trump's deregulatory agenda."

(Story updated at 4:40 to include additional reaction.)

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