Sonny Perdue, the new secretary of agriculture, on May 1 announced a rollback of requirements for the federal school lunch program, which were championed by former First Lady Michelle Obama. The new rules give more authority to state oversight authorities and the local school districts, allowing flexibility in providing whole grains, less sodium and milk with up to 1 percent fat and generally meeting calorie caps.
“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 new rules are for school year 2017-2018. Some of the particulars:
- Whole grains: USDA will allow states to grant exemptions to schools experiencing hardship in serving 100 percent of grain products as whole-grain rich; and USDA will take all necessary regulatory actions to implement a long-term solution.
- Sodium: For School Years 2017-2018 through 2020, schools will not be required to meet "sodium target 2"; schools that meet sodium target 1 will be considered compliant. Sodium target 1, which was required for the 2014-2015 school year, required sodium to be less than 1,230mg for grades K-5, 1,360mg for grades 6-8 and 1,420 for high schoolers. Target 2, for next school year, would have ratcheted those numbers down by 24 percent. "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."
- Milk: USDA will begin the regulatory process for schools to serve 1 percent flavored milk through the school meals programs. USDA will seek to publish an interim rule as soon as possible to effect the change in milk policy.
“I’ve got 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.”
According to USDA figures, school food requirements cost school districts and states an additional $1.22 billion in fiscal year 2015. "At the same time costs are going up, most states are reporting they’ve seen a decrease in student participation in school lunches, as nationwide about one million students choose not to have a school lunch each day," a USDA announcement said. "This impacts schools in two ways: The decline in school lunch participation means reduced revenue to schools while they simultaneously are encountering increased costs."
Schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program are reimbursed by the federal government but must meet requirements of the program, which created stricter rules on nutritional content in 2012. USDA's Food and Nutrition Service administers 15 nutrition assistance programs that include the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and the Summer Food Service Program.