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USDA to loosen school meal standards

New Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announces changes that ease restrictions on sodium, whole grains and milk.

Speaking at a Washington, D.C., area elementary school today, recently confirmed USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue announced a series of adjustments to nutrition standards for school meals set by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) of 2010. Scheduled to be effective with the start of the 2017-2018 school year, they include maintaining Target 1 sodium levels in school meals through 2020, easing requirements on the serving of whole grains and allowing the use of flavored low-fat milk instead of just skim.

Specifically, Perdue announced that he would direct the USDA to begin the regulatory process for schools to serve one percent flavored milk in school meals programs. “USDA will seek to publish an interim rule as soon as possible to effect the change in milk policy,” reads the official USDA release announcing the changes.

In addition, the new rules will allow districts to opt out of serving 100 percent of grain products as whole grain rich and also would also push back deadlines for schools to meet lower sodium levels.

“For School Years 2017-2018 through 2020, schools will not be required to meet Sodium Target 2. Instead, schools that meet Sodium Target 1 will be considered compliant,” the USDA release states.

In his comments at Catoctin Elementary School in Leesburg, Va., Perdue reflected the Trump administration’s view that HHFKA standards are too restrictive and end up reducing school meal participation while increasing waste.

“This announcement is the result of years of feedback from students, schools and foodservice experts about the challenges they are facing in meeting the final regulations for school meals,” said Perdue, citing USDA figures that show school food rules cost districts and states an extra $1.22 billion in fiscal year 2015. "If kids aren't eating the food, and it's ending up in the trash, they aren't getting any nutrition—thus undermining the intent of the program."

The secretary’s comments were supported by the School Nutrition Association, which had been urging Congress to provide “practical flexibility under the federal school nutrition standards to help ease menu planning challenges and appeal to diverse student tastes,” according to a statement SNA released shortly after Perdue spoke.

"School Nutrition Association is appreciative of Secretary Perdue's support of school meal programs in providing flexibility to prepare and serve healthy meals that are appealing to students,” noted SNA CEO Patricia Montague in the release. “School nutrition professionals are committed to the students they serve and will continue working with USDA and the Secretary to strengthen and protect school meal programs.”

Perdue was joined at Catoctin by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, which deals with school nutrition issues and is working on HHFKA reauthorization legislation. Also on hand was SNA President Dr. Becky Domokos-Bays, who is school nutrition supervisor for the nearby Loudoun County (Va.) Public Schools, and SNA CEO Montague.

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