USDA lifts limitations in school lunch programs

December 17, 2012

In a Dec. 7 letter to regional and state directors of special nutrition programs and child nutrition programs, Cynthia Long, Director of the Child Nutrition Division at the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA), stated that the agency would lift its limitations on caloric intake of grains and protein for the National School Lunch program for 2012–2013.

In Jan. 2012, at the direction of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act passed by Congress, the USDA published a final rule to promote the health of America’s school children. The rule established new, science-based nutrition standards for the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs. The standards identified health ranges for five categories of food—fruits, vegetables, grains, meats or meat alternatives, and fluid milk—as well as the healthy ranges for total calories, saturated and trans fat, and sodium. For the grains and meats/meat alternates, the USDA set daily minimum quantities, as well as weekly minimum and maximum quantities for total calories.

During the initial period of implementation, the USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) learned about the significant operational challenges the schools were having in meeting the requirements for the grains and meats/meat alternates components, particularly for schools with multiple menu offerings and multiple serving lines during meal service.

Grains are unique among the components of the new school lunch standards in that they may be served in a variety of ways. For example, grains may be served as part of the entrée such as a sandwich or pasta, as a side dish such as rice or a roll, or both. Grains may also be served occasionally (up to 2 oz per week) as a dessert (e.g., fruit cobbler). This variety may create challenges for school menu planners considering different portion sizes for a single meal and across the various meals that may be offered on a given day, all of which must stay within the weekly ranges. This has limited schools’ flexibility and in some cases has unintentionally forced schools to remove popular items, such as sandwiches, from the daily menu. The same is true for meat/meat alternates. The limits have led to schools removing items such as hamburgers and bone-in chicken breasts from daily menus. In addition, some of the meat/meat alternate products used frequently are not yet available from suppliers in a useful range of sizes.

To help address these challenges, FNS is offering additional flexibility in menu planning for school year 2012–2013. There is no change in the method of measuring the required daily minimum quantities for grains or meats/meat alternates. But given the complexity of calculating the grains and meats/meat alternates components and to allow for more time for suppliers to more widely offer a broader array of serving options “state agencies should consider any SFA [School Food Authorities] compliant with the component requirements for grains and meat/meat alternates if the menu is compliant with the daily and weekly minimums for these two components, regardless of whether they have exceeded the maximums for the same components,” Long wrote.

“We understand that this is a year of transition, and state agencies are encouraged to work with SFAs to assist them in meeting the new requirements,” said Long. “The flexibility in the assessment approach reflected in this memorandum will facilitate implementation in SY 2012–13. FNS will continue to monitor implementation data and feedback from SFAs and state agencies to determine whether the appropriate approach is being used to measure compliance, and whether other adjustments beyond the current school year prove necessary.”

Letter (pdf)