Shaking Up School Food Standards

School food rules will have an impact on sodium, milk and whole-grain foods

The USDA gives schools more flexibility on rules pertaining to sodium, milk and bread.

Pass the salt, pour the chocolate milk and don’t seal up that loaf of white bread just yet. Three pages—a small section of President Donald Trump’s 1,665-page government spending bill signed into law in May—will have a big impact on school food standards in the upcoming school year.

The bill funds the federal government through September 2017. Among its provisions is language that will ease for at least the 2017-18 school calendar nutrition standards put in place by former President Barack Obama’s administration pertaining to sodium, low-fat milk and whole-grain requirements.

The rules, part of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and championed by former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move anti-obesity initiative, are getting a new look. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees school food programs and is led by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, rolled out the changes in a promotion called “Make School Meals Great Again.”

Easing rules on some of the basics

Here’s a look at the three key areas affected by the new school meal rules:

Sodium content. The spending bill blocks Target 2 plans to reduce sodium in elementary school lunches to 935 mg. later this year. This means that the Target 1 amount of 1,230 mg. of sodium currently in place will remain until 2020.

Low-fat milk. 1% flavored milk is now allowed without exemption from the state.

Whole grains. States can grant waivers from requirements that took effect in 2014 stating all grains must be whole-grain rich. This means everything from bread to pasta to pizza crust no longer need to be at least 51 percent whole-grain. Schools must demonstrate hardship, including financial difficulty, in procuring specific whole-grain products acceptable to students and compliant with whole-grain-rich requirements.

Concerns and explanations

The changes worry health advocates and those who say the program has made a difference, while others, including the School Nutrition Association (SNA) offer praise.

A spokeswoman for the Center of Science in the Public Interest says the move comes despite statistics that show 90 percent of kids in the U.S. eat too much sodium every day. “Schools have been moving in the right direction, so it makes no sense to freeze that progress in its tracks.” Margo Wootan says in a statement.

The changes could have been more sweeping, some observers point out. With relaxed rules in place, the overall nutrition requirements remain—with some added flexibility.

“I’m pleased the administration acknowledged progress that has been made on school nutrition,” says Dr. Katie Wilson, SNS, who until February was the Deputy Under Secretary of Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services at the USDA. “Since 2012 we’ve made a lot of progress while continuing to offer choices that fall within regulations, and this continues much of that progress.”

Perdue has countered by critics by noting the USDA intends to work on long-term solutions to school food standards. According to news reports about the rollbacks, Purdue says these changes were based on years of feedback from students, schools and other experts, including the SNA, who say the Obama-era regulations presented challenges or, in some cases, were not working.

Until permanent rules are in place, Perdue wants school foodservice directors to provide more options that fall within the requirements. “If kids aren’t eating the food, and it’s ending up in the trash, they aren’t getting any nutrition,” Perdue says.

SNA representatives stood with Perdue as he announced the changes and the organization released a statement praising the move.

“The School Nutrition Association is appreciative of Secretary Perdue’s support of school meal programs in providing flexibility,” the organization’s Chief Executive Patricia Montague writes. “School nutrition professionals are committed to the students they serve and will continue working with the USDA and the Secretary to strengthen and protect school meal programs.”

The quest: making changes to the menu

With relaxed regulations in place, the question for schools is “What do I do next?” After all, bids were placed earlier this year, before the changes were announced. 

Foodservice directors who have not opened their solicitation for response should review their bid specifications to incorporate any changes with regard to the sodium and milk changes prior to solicitation, urges Gordon Food Service Bid Department Manager Jon Fillmore. For whole-grain foods, an exemption still needs to be obtained from the state.

“If an exemption is going to be obtained, the bid specifications for whole-grain foods should be included in the review,” he advises.
If a foodservice director has already opened the bid for review, there are options to solicit supplemental bids including the impacted sodium, milk and whole grain-food items, or it’s possible to utilize micro-purchasing options available for procurement.

Schools still can add different items or switch out items no matter what time of year, Gordon Food Service Bid Process Coordinator Randi Saukas says. One big consideration is whether products will be available to meet the relaxed standards after manufacturers have spent several years adjusting products to where they expected them to be for the upcoming year.

“There was a big shift when the switch was made to whole-grain because the items weren’t being produced so we had to source them,” Saukas recalls. “Now, I think it really depends on how manufacturers are able to make changes to their items.”

Gordon Food Service can always provide options, she notes, but it’s unlikely that schools would be able to flip back to what they were buying years ago because those formulations have been changed at the manufacturer level. If foodservice directors choose to go off bid and select items, they may not get bid pricing. 

“Schools we work with can contact their Customer Development Specialist or Education Specialist to see if there are products that fall within the new standards,” Saukas says. “But it all depends on what the manufacturers are producing and how they are going forward with this change.”