The United States Department of Agriculture on Wednesday published its interim final rule on three changes to nutrition requirements in school lunches. The changes, which were announced by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in May, loosen sodium limits, allow schools to serve flavored 1 percent milk, and pull back on a mandate that schools serve whole-grain foods.
By relaxing school food health standards, the changes fit neatly into the “trampling on (Michelle) Obama’s legacy” narrative—but some insist they’re not that big a deal. As school food commentator Bettina Elias Siegel points out on her blog The Lunch Tray, the rule doesn’t give schools license to ditch whole grain pasta or start ladling salt onto mashed potatoes. Rather, it cements current sodium restrictions, preventing stricter rules from kicking in soon. And in order to use grains that aren’t “whole-grain rich,” schools have to be able to show hardship in meeting the standards.
Politico’s Morning Agriculture reports that the non-profit School Nutrition Association (SNA) supported the sodium and whole grain changes, citing its recent survey that indicated schools are concerned about convincing students to eat low sodium foods and that the majority—65 percent—have had trouble sourcing whole-grain staples. (It’s worth mentioning that some of SNA’s biggest donors are processed food companies, including PepsiCo and Domino’s Pizza.)
The milk tweak, meanwhile, was the work of the dairy lobby, according to Morning Ag. But even that may not make a big difference, at least not immediately. In September, Kim Severson reported for The New York Times that cafeteria administrators can’t even buy 1 percent flavored milk if they want to. “Dairy processors have already geared up to make milk in school-size containers based on the Obama regulations,” she wrote. “Besides, they say, children have become used to nonfat chocolate milk.”
The Food and Nutrition Service is accepting public comments through January 28, 2018. The rule will take effect starting in the 2018 school year.