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Serving: United States

USDA to extend school meal flexibilities

School Nutrition Association Fat Free Chocolate Milk School lunch.jpg
A student in Brandon Valley School District, South Dakota, receives a healthy school lunch. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has offered flexibility which allows for low-fat flavored milk options rather than fat free only.
Rule restores schools' flexibility for flavored and low-fat milk, whole grain and sodium requirements.

In line with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s promise to serve America’s children well through school meal programs, the department announced Nov. 24 that it will publish a proposed rule maintaining flexibility for schools to serve “tasty meals their kids will be eager to eat.”

These proposed changes respond directly to the needs of “nutrition professionals who are the experts on-the-ground, hearing from our children every day,” USDA noted in a release.

The proposed rule would maintain flexibility in USDA child nutrition program meal requirements related to milk, grains and sodium by:

  • Allowing flavored, low-fat milk in the child nutrition programs;
  • Allowing half of the weekly grains offered through the school meal programs to be whole grain rich, and
  • Providing schools with more time for gradual sodium reduction by retaining Sodium Target 1 through the end of the 2023-24 school year, continuing to Target 2 in the 2024-25 school year and eliminating the final target.

A day earlier, USDA issued a separate rule as an administrative step to ensure the department’s procedural compliance with a court ruling regarding its 2018 final rule on child nutrition program flexibilities. The new rule issued Nov. 24 proposes to restore the flexibilities included in the 2018 final rule. Despite this procedural formality, schools do not have to change their meals, thanks to the  meal pattern flexibilities USDA has already provided in all child nutrition programs through June 30, 2021, in response to the COVID-19 national emergency.

USDA issued the proposed regulations following the April 13 federal district court ruling that vacated the 2018 final rule, Child Nutrition Programs: Flexibilities for Milk, Whole Grains & Sodium Requirements due to procedural issues. The School Nutrition Assn. urged USDA to restore the flexibilities to ease the burden on school meal programs.

The International Dairy Foods Assn. (IDFA) also welcomed the proposed rule. IDFA president and chief executive officer Dr. Michael Dykes said according to the federal government, American children and adolescents over four years old are not consuming enough dairy to meet federal dietary recommendations. Yet, over the past several years, the varieties of milk that can be offered to kids in school have been reduced. First, whole milk disappeared, then 2% and, finally, 1% flavored milk, which kids prefer compared to nonfat flavored milk.

“As a result, we’re losing a generation of milk drinkers and pushing kids toward less-healthy options, including soft drinks, juices and/or caffeinated beverages,” Dykes said. “None of these replacements compare to the nutritional advantages of milk. That’s why IDFA is pleased to see USDA propose changes to bring low-fat flavored milk back to school nutrition programs.

“It has been proven time and again in schools across the country that when schools offer flavored milks, kids not only drink more milk; they are more likely to participate in the school meal programs and waste less food, acquiring more vitamins and nutrients,” Dykes added. “In fact, about 73% of the calcium available in the food supply is provided by milk and milk products. Milk is the top source of calcium, potassium, phosphorus and vitamin D in the diet of children 2-18 years. It’s clear that low-fat flavored milk is highly nutritious, offering vitamins and minerals all kids need and most kids lack.”

The proposed rule announced will publish in the Federal Register on Nov. 25, followed by a 30-day public comment period.

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