TWIN FALLS, Idaho — USDA intends to give schools more flexibility in nutrition programs when it comes to milk, whole grains and sodium to ensure those standards are not only healthful but practical.

The new rule, which goes into effect Feb. 11, gives schools the option of offering flavored, low-fat milk and reduces the requirement for whole grains to half of weekly offerings. It also provides more time for schools to reduce sodium levels and eliminates the third and final sodium target.

Schools have faced challenges serving meals that are both appetizing to students and meet the nutrition standards. The new standards will allow schools to serve healthful meals that meet local preferences, USDA Secretary Sonny Purdue said.

“If kids are not eating what is being served, they are not benefiting, and food is being wasted,” he said.

The relaxed standards aren’t likely to change offerings in cafeterias throughout the Twin Falls, Idaho, School District, where most students clean their plates, Lori Rieth, the district’s food service supervisor, said.

The district is meeting the current standards and offering a variety of options that students like. Food manufacturers have evolved with improved products that meet the standards and appeal to students, she said.

The district is able to purchase low-sodium products, and only uses salt in kitchen preparation when needed. Salt is not provided to students, and spice stations are provided at the middle schools and high schools so students can add flavor without adding sodium, she said.

The district has also been using whole grains for quite a few years. The wheat it’s able to obtain has gone from dark and heavy to whiter and lighter, she said.

“Things have come a long way, and the product is so much nicer,” she said.

The district also has a test kitchen where it’s able to work on recipes and taste vendors’ products. Staff also takes into account feedback from student surveys on cafeteria offerings, she said.

“We’re not going to make everybody happy every meal, but we try hard. For the most part, we see a lot of kids eating their meals,” she said.

The district serves fat-free flavored and white milk and 1 percent white milk. It has the option of serving 2 percent white milk, but prefers to use those calories elsewhere. Students are used to the milk offerings, and the district will keep with the status quo, she said.

“We’re able to supply them (students) with nutritious meals and give them access to a wide variety of nutritious foods; that’s our goal,” she said.

If meeting nutritional standards is a burden for schools, they can get a waiver and opt out, she said.

“We don’t have that problem here,” she said.

The relaxed standards have the backing of the School Nutrition Association, which cites declining participation in the school lunch program.

Nearly 2 million fewer students choose school lunch each day since updated nutrition standards took effect. The pace and degree of menu changes under the standards were more than some students would accept, according to the association.

In addition, a national survey by SNA last year found 92 percent of responding districts were concerned about the availability of foods to meet future sodium limits, and 65 percent reported challenges with the mandate that all grains must be whole grain rich.

Other organizations — including the American Heart Association, Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics — strongly oppose the rollback on whole grains and sodium standards.

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