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United States Department of Agriculture announces proposed changes in school meal rules affecting fruit and vegetable requirements, meal patterns and administrative reviews

New proposed school meal rules released by the USDA would increase flexibility in school lunch “vegetable subgroups” requirements, allow schools to adjust fruit servings at breakfast, increase meal pattern options for different age/grade groups and expand the availability of school lunch entrées as a la carte offerings.

The United States Department of Agriculture has announced new proposed school meal rules that would increase flexibility in the “vegetable subgroups” requirements for school lunches, allow schools to adjust fruit servings at breakfast, provide more options for schools in applying age/grade groups for meal patterns and expand the ability of schools to offer school lunch entrées for a la carte purchase. The new rules would also streamline administrative review requirements based on past performance.

In its release, the USDA characterized the proposed changes as the result of feedback from two years of “roundtables with schools and key program stakeholders” and that they “reflect requests by those who deliver FNS programs on the ground for flexibilities to better promote healthy eating and program participation” while “complement[ing] the December 2018 final rule, which provided milk, whole grains, and sodium flexibilities.”

Besides changes in menu requirements, the proposed rule also “seeks to streamline monitoring requirements [by] ending the one-size-fits all requirement for a review every three years in favor of more options, a longer timeframe, and a risk-focused approach,” the USDA release said.

After being informed of the pending announcement by USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue at a roundtable discussion in San Antonio today, School Nutrition Association (SNA) CEO Patricia Montague said in a news release that “SNA is eager to review the proposed changes, discuss them with our members and share their feedback with USDA. We are grateful for USDA’s ongoing dialogue with school nutrition professionals and desire to ensure school meal programs operate smoothly to benefit students.”

However, other parties were much more critical.

Colin Schwartz, deputy director of legislative affairs for Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the proposed rules, if finalized, “would create a huge loophole in school nutrition guidelines, paving the way for children to choose pizza, burgers, French fries and other foods high in calories, saturated fat or sodium in place of balanced school meals every day,” according to the Washington Post.

Nancy Roman, president of Partnership for a Healthier America, quoted in the same Post article, said that the announced changes “sound like a step in the wrong direction. If anything, the science of the past few years suggests that we need even more fruits and vegetables at each meal, and the less processed the better. It’s not just what is on the plate, but how it is prepared. And particularly young children need more exposure to unprocessed, easy-to-eat, fruits, vegetables and greens.”

The proposed rule will publish in the Federal Register in January 2020 and will be open for public comment for 60 days through www.Regulations.gov.

The release of the proposed rule came just days after SNA’s Montague told a group of child nutrition professionals not to expect Child Nutrition Reauthorization this year, saying that Congress had too many other priorities to take up the bill.

Every five years, Congress must reauthorize the nation’s child nutrition programs, run through the USDA, which serve nearly 30 million meals to students each year. The last time CNR was authorized was in 2012, when the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was enacted. The bill was the largest change to the school meal program in nearly 15 years, and with that saw many critical voices over increased mandates and regulations that many say have led to an increase in food waste and a decrease in participation.

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