USDA delays healthy school lunch requirements

USDA delays healthy school lunch requirements
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The Trump administration is delaying Obama-era requirements aimed at making school meals healthier for kids.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released an interim final rule Wednesday allowing schools to serve flavored one-percent milk and get a state exemption to serve grains that are not whole-grain rich through the 2018-2019 school year.

Schools under the rule also get out of having to further reduce sodium levels in breakfasts and lunches next year.

USDA says it’s working to give schools more flexibility to serve nutritious and appealing meals.

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“Based on the feedback we’ve gotten from students, schools, and food service professionals in local schools across America, it’s clear that many still face challenges incorporating some of the meal pattern requirements,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny PerdueGeorge (Sonny) Ervin PerdueUS puts business ahead of children’s health Western states brace for most severe wildfire outbreak since 2012 Agriculture chief: Farmers 'understand' trade spat with China MORE said in a statement.

“Schools want to offer food that students actually want to eat. It doesn’t do any good to serve nutritious meals if they wind up in the trash can.”

Last year Congress passed a budget bill that provided this flexibility through the 2017-2018 school year.

Under the Obama-era requirements, backed by former first lady Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaQueen Elizabeth wore brooch from Obamas on the day Trump arrived in the UK: reports Obama: 'I'm actually surprised by how much money I got' Michelle Obama attends Beyonce and Jay-Z concert in Paris MORE, schools were expected to gradually reduce sodium in school meals in three stages.

Under that plan, schools were to get sodium levels down to 935 milligrams in elementary schools; 1,035 mg in middle schools; and 1,080 mg in high schools per week starting July 1, 2017.

Now, sodium levels in school lunches must average less than 1,230 mg in elementary schools; 1,360 mg in middle schools; and 1,420 mg in high schools per week under current law.

In the notice filed in the Federal Register, USDA said it intends to retain the current levels through the 2020-2021 school year.

Under the earlier plan, schools were expected to reduce sodium levels even further by July 1, 2022: all the way down to 640 mg in elementary schools, 710 mg in middle schools and 740 mg in high schools per week.

The interim final rule will take effect beginning July 1, 2018.

The School Nutrition Association (SNA), which represents school nutrition professionals, commended USDA for giving schools more time to comply with the requirements. 

"School nutrition professionals have achieved tremendous progress, modifying recipes, hosting student taste tests and employing a wide range of other tactics to meet regulations while also encouraging students to enjoy healthier school meals,” said SNA President Lynn Harvey said in a statement.

"Despite these efforts, school nutrition professionals continue to report challenges with sodium and whole grain mandates, as well as limited access to whole grain waivers."

But the Alliance for a Healthier Generation slammed USDA, saying the changes do not reflect the tremendous progress and success it has seen from schools across the country in meeting or exceeding national guidelines for healthier school meals. 

"Every child deserves a healthy future — now is not the time to reverse progress toward that reality," Howell Wechsler, the group's executive director, said in a statement. 

"Instead of lowering standards, we need to provide additional training and resources to the minority of schools that have difficulty meeting sodium targets and whole grain requirements. Schools need our support to continue offering meals that keep kids healthy, an investment in our children’s health that will best prepare the next generation for success."