USDA Announces More Flexibility for School Meals

Posted by Barry Sackin on May 10, 2017 10:35:54 AM

USD announces school meal flexibility

The following post was written by Barry Sackin of Sackin & Associates

It Happens Slow and It Happens Fast

When we last checked in, the future of Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) was uncertain.  We have some clarity now following private meetings with both House and Senate staff during the SNA Legislative Action Conference.  The House Education and the Workforce Committee would very much like to move on CNR, which is now two and a half years past due.  That said, their docket is pretty full and the Chairwoman, Virginia Foxx (R-NC), has no active plan in play.  And don’t forget, the full House has quite a lot on their plates, too.

On the other hand, the Senate Agriculture Committee has clearly stated they have no intention of addressing child nutrition during this full session of Congress.  That means no action before 2020.  Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) is Ranking Member of the committee and has said she is done with this issue for now.  And don’t forget, it took until late April to have the new Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, confirmed and sworn in.  The committee still has more than a dozen confirmations to address when (and if) the White House nominates candidates, and there doesn’t seem to be an urgency to do so.  

In March, Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) sent a letter to the USDA saying that the issues with school meals were created by the USDA through the regulatory process.  He mentions that the issues can be resolved the same way, without Congressional action. 

And that is what we're seeing now. At the start of his second week as Secretary, Mr. Perdue, with Senator Roberts by his side, held a press event at a school in Leesburg, VA (the school district administered by SNA president Becky Domokos-Bayes) where he issued a proclamation announcing a forthcoming interim regulation to expand and extend flexibility in school meals.  Here is what he proposed:

  • Whole grains:
    • Schools are experiencing challenges in finding the full range of products they need (and that their students enjoy) that are whole grain-rich. They need continued flexibility in meeting the whole grain requirements for school meals.
    • The USDA will allow states to grant exemptions to schools experiencing hardship in serving 100% of grain products as whole-grain rich for the 2017-18 school year. The USDA will take all necessary regulatory actions to implement a long-term solution.
  • Sodium:
    • From 2017-18 through the 2019-20 school year, schools will not be required to meet Sodium Target 2. Instead, schools that meet Sodium Target 1 will be considered compliant.
    • The timeframe will provide schools and the school nutrition industry with the certainty and predictability they need to make plans for creating foods with the appropriate amount of sodium.  During this period, USDA will take all necessary regulatory actions to implement a long-term solution.
    • The 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:
    • Milk is a key component of school meals, meaning schools must have more options for students who select milk as part of their lunch or breakfast.
    • Perdue will direct the USDA to begin the regulatory process for schools to serve 1% flavored milk through the school meals programs. The USDA will seek to publish an interim rule as soon as possible to effect the change in milk policy.

This represents a significant accomplishment for SNA, which has been asking for this flexibility for several years.

It must be pointed out that the Secretary’s announcement is not without controversy.  The nutrition community and anti-Trump forces are painting these reasonable actions as a roll-back of President and First Lady Michelle Obama’s efforts to improve nutrition.  The modest flexibility does not “roll back” strong nutrition standards, but recognizes the negative impact that some parts of the new meal patterns has on student acceptability, participation, and costs to the meal programs.

We'll be sure to provide another update when the interim regulation is published.

About the author

Barry SackinBarry Sackin is a school foodservice veteran of more than 35 years. Barry started his career on staff at San Diego Unified School District in 1980. Barry was a director of large districts for several years, at one point overseeing two districts with more than 70 sites and nearly 45,000 students.  While serving on the SNA Board of Directors, Barry was asked to join the staff as VP of Public Policy and has since worked on child nutrition policy for the past 20 years.

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Topics: School Nutrition Regulation