In response to concerns by school officials, parents and legislators, USDA is making permanent the current temporary flexibility that allows schools to serve larger portions of lean proteins and whole grains in school lunches.
That temporary flexibility, which lifted the weekly limits on protein and grains, was granted in late 2012 after implementation of stricter standards in July of that year brought a backlash from frustrated school officials, parents and students.
The stricter standards were in response to the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 and set weekly limit at 9 ounces to 12 ounces for grains and 10 ounces to 12 ounces for proteins, depending on the grade level.
The new standards, which also included more fruits and vegetables, less sodium and caloric limits, were meant to get school meals in line with USDA dietary guidelines for healthier diets, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association.
Problems quickly started arising after implementation. The grain limits were so strict that offering a daily sandwich with two slices of average-size bread exceeded the weekly limit for elementary school meals, she said.
That meant schools had to change their menus and it caused confusion for grade school children who preferred a daily sandwich offering over a hot meal, she said.
The protein limits also caused problems. High school athletes complained portions were too small. And even an entrée salad with turkey and cheese or a slice of cheese on a sandwich tipped the weekly protein limits, she said.
The limits were a problem for schools in their menu planning and for their suppliers who had to decide whether to reformulate their products – such as smaller slices of bread or smaller hamburger patties – and change their recipes, packaging and marketing, she said.
USDA pretty quickly recognized the problem and temporarily lifted the limits within six months, but the reprieve was temporary until USDA’s final rule of a permanent lift on Jan. 2, she said.
The caloric maximums remain in place, but by lifting the limits on grains and proteins, schools have more flexibility in how they use those calories, she said.
The limits raised concerned with school nutrition authorities, who said they were too rigid and left children hungry, said Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, who co-sponsored legislation, the Sensible School Lunch Act, S.427, to remedy the problem.
The strict caps on protein and grain servings did not provide for the needed flexibility to meet the nutritional needs for students and also imposed additional compliance costs on school districts, he said.
National Cattlemen’s Beef Association has continued to be involved with the issue on behalf of cattlemen and cattlewomen and is pleased with the permanent flexibility USDA has now provided, said NCBA President Scott George, a dairy and cow/calf producer in Cody, Wyo.
Under this rule, school lunch meal-planning experts will continue to be allowed to serve larger portions of lean meat and grain foods in school lunches. That will allow a 3-ounce portion of lean beef to appear on menus and certainly creates an opportunity for beef purchases, he said.