Recognizing that certain restrictions on school lunches were too stringent, the United States Department of Agriculture (or, USDA) has eased limitations, allowing for a wider array of foods to be served during the school day that still meet nutritional standards. The change makes a temporary rule to a provision of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 permanent. Originally, the law altered both the nutritional requirements of meals served by schools, and the structure of federal reimbursement. A six cent per lunch served reimbursement was offered to schools who complied with the new nutritional standards.
The guidelines set out by the USDA had maximum protein, and grain allowances, which schools often had a difficult time maintaining. In explaining the rule change, the USDA stated that this was one of the most frequent concerns. There were also reports that schools, and the school food authorities were “experiencing challenges with student acceptability of new items and smaller servings of items on their menus.”
As a result of the restrictions, meals that previously would have been considered healthy — such as a chicken sandwich with whole wheat bread — would have to be taken off the menu because it surpassed allotted weekly values.
The School Nutrition Association (or, SNA) was one of the groups lobbying for the standards to be changed. The organization explained in its 2013 legislative talking points why certain items could not be considered healthy under the USDA rules. “Weekly limits on the grains and proteins served with school lunch create menu planning challenges. In many cases, school nutrition professionals cannot offer healthy options like daily sandwiches (too much grain), a small side of peanut butter with celery sticks or low or non-fat cheese and yogurt on the salad bar (too much protein).”
Instead, SNA favored a calorie cap, and an elimination of the protein, and grain limits. This way, the “USDA can protect the nutritional integrity of the school lunch standards while giving cafeterias more flexibility to design healthy menus that meet standards and student tastes.”
In August of 2013, CBS reported that one year in, schools had begun to opt out of the program because students were not interested in the options being offered, and money was being lost. ”Some of the stuff we had to offer, they wouldn’t eat,” Gary Lewis, a superintendent in Catlin, Illinois explained.
Lewis’ school system saw daily declines of 10 to 12 percent, a loss of $30,000 for the year. Lewis said that, ”You sit there and watch the kids, and you know they’re hungry at the end of the day, and that led to some behavior and some lack of attentiveness.”
Once a school dropped out, they were able to implement their own standards. Lewis’ schools chose this option for the 2013/2014 school year. However, some districts relied on the reimbursement money, and could not easily leave the program. With the permanent rule change, dropping out or being forced to stay in the program is no longer a necessity.
“School Nutrition Association members are pleased that USDA has provided this permanent fix, acknowledging the need for greater flexibility in planning well balanced school meals,” said SNA President Leah Schmidt said in a press release after the change was announced. “With school nutrition professionals already planning menus and inventory for the 2014-15 school year, eliminating the grain and protein limits is a key step to providing healthy menus that appeal to students.”