USDA Relaxes School Lunch Rules for More Meat and Grains

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is moving to adjust its strict rules governing school lunches around the country after numerous complaints were received after the rules went into effect this fall. According to the Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the USDA will lift the previously imposed limits on how much meat and grains could be served to students in one week.

The change comes as a response to several letters from lawmakers who claimed that the healthier and more calorie-restricted lunches meant that kids weren't getting enough to eat during the school day. Complaints also came in from school administrators who said that the rigid guidelines made meal planning incredibly difficult and time consuming.

"This flexibility is being provided to allow more time for the development of products that fit within the new standards while granting schools additional weekly menu planning options to help ensure that children receive a wholesome, nutritious meal every day of the week," Vilsack said in a letter to Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.

The healthy lunch guidelines were put into place to combat what many view as a growing obesity epidemic among children, teens and young adults. Among other rules, the lunches conformed to strict limits on calories allotted for each meal and the amount of salt and fat contained within. Regulations also called for greater use of healthier ingredients like lean meat, vegetables and whole grains.

Under the rules, each lunch meal included either a serving of vegetable or fruit every day. Meals also had to conform to "food plate" guidelines, which recently replaced the more commonly known food pyramid.

The relaxation on guidelines promised by Vilsack will not undo all the work done by the USDA. The calorie restrictions will remain in place, but the removal of the limits on meats and grains will offer administrators more flexibility when putting together lunch menus.

Margo Wootan, a nutrition lobbyist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says the change is minor and the new guidance shows that USDA will work with school nutrition officials and others who have concerns.

"It takes time to work out the kinks," Wootan said. "This should show Congress that they don't need to interfere legislatively."

The new lunch rules are only applicable to schools that qualify for the federal funds that go to subsidizing meals for low-income students. Since the program is federally funded, the government always had regulations in place to ensure that lunches were filling and broadly met nutritional standards. The move to create stricter guidelines was motivated by the fact that the obesity rates among school children are growing and steps needed to be taken to reverse the trend.

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