USDA allocates $5.5M to help schools serve healthier lunches

USDA allocates $5.5M to help schools serve healthier lunches
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The U.S. Department of Agriculture is giving schools $5.5 million in training grants, in addition to the $25 million being allocated this year for new kitchen equipment, to help districts prepare healthier meals.

“Our kids today are growing up in a very competitive economy and in this competitive economy it’s going to be very important for them and their country to be on top of their game,” Secretary of Agriculture Tom VilsackThomas James VilsackUSDA: Farm-to-school programs help schools serve healthier meals OVERNIGHT MONEY: House poised to pass debt-ceiling bill MORE said Friday.

The training grants will be used to help schools comply with a rule USDA finalized this week that requires all personnel in school nutrition programs to complete annual training. It also sets minimum education standards in hiring personnel to manage and operate the national school lunch and school breakfast programs. 

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The kitchen equipment funding, Vilsack said, will help schools install salad bars and to transition from fried to baked food options.

The funding announcement comes just days after Republicans launched the latest attack against first lady Michelle Obama’s prized healthy school lunch regulations, a main component of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which Congress is expected to reauthorize this year.

On Monday, Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) announced plans to introduce legislation that would relax the USDA rules for schools when it comes to serving whole grain products and reducing sodium levels.

Under Hoeven’s legislation, schools would be allowed to revert back to 2012 standards, which require at least half of all grains served in a school breakfast and lunch to be whole-grain rich. The standard now is for 100 percent of all grains offered to be whole-grain rich. 

Vilsack said the USDA is already providing schools flexibility when it comes to meeting the sodium and whole grain standards. He said the agency is “deeply concerned” that lawmakers are using flexibility as a way to roll back the progress that he says has been made.

Though schools have reported a decline in the number of students participating in their lunch programs since the healthy standards took effect, a study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University Connecticut found that kids are eating more healthy food at school.

The study said 66 percent of students are choosing to add fruit to their lunch tray, up from 54 percent in 2012.