USDA Proposes Changes to National School Lunch Program

Last Friday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a series of proposed changes to the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs that Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue says build upon the school meal reforms implemented in 2018 and offer school foodservice professionals greater menu flexibility.

The prospective changes include allowing operators to serve only half a cup of fruit, rather than a whole cup, as part of breakfasts outside the cafeteria, as well as allowing half a cup of legumes to count as both a meat alternate and toward the weekly legumes requirement.

Many operators were left scrambling to review the document outlining the proposals, which is over 150 pages. However, Katie Wilson, executive director for the Urban School Food Alliance, is encouraging operators to take ample time to go over the proposed changes and refrain from making rushed judgements and reading too much into headlines, which she says can be misleading.

“There are some very sensible ideas in this proposal in both menu planning and accountability procedures, and everyone has 60 days to comment on the proposal,” Wilson says. “A good example is [that] the new proposal gives districts the ability to easily use and count protein in the breakfast program. We know that protein is important in the morning, and by using protein in place of some of the grains, we will lower the sugar content of the meal. A lot of the grain products used in breakfast are too high in sugar.”

Here are some more thoughts from operators about the proposed changes.

Increasing local produce
At Cincinnati Public Schools in Ohio, 35% of the produce served is local, says the district’s Director of Student Dining Services Jessica Shelly, who believes that the proposed elimination of the vegetable subgroup could increase that percentage.

“I do think eliminating the vegetable subgroup requirement will be helpful, not because I want to serve more potatoes or credit a sauce as a vegetable, but because I want to be able to use the locally grown harvest as it become available in my region,” she says. “Why should a school turn down zucchini, wax beans or beets because they are an ‘other vegetable’ and they need to fill up other categories first? Not all schools have the freezer capacity or have a producer who can IQF (individually quick freeze) a product to maintain quality until it can be menued.”

Another change Shelly says she looks forward to is the proposed rule allowing naturally flavored water to count toward the water requirement.

“I have been asking for this rule change for years,” Shelley says. “We want our scholars to stay hydrated. Having the flexibility to create attractive and fun hydration stations that include water flavored with lemon slices, mint or cucumber will be a great addition to our dining areas.”

Working to reduce waste
Like at many school districts, waste is a problem at the School District of Janesville (SDJ) in Janesville, Wis. School Nutrition Manager Jim Degan says the district would consider implementing the proposed change of offering National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP) entrees a la carte to help eliminate waste.

“Making lunch entrees available as an a la carte option makes great sense,” he says, noting that schools “should have the option” of offering them as such.

Degan says he would also like to see the USDA offer guidelines on the amount of seat time students should have during lunch periods to further reduce waste.

“In many cases, I have seen students wait in line, make their choices and sit down to eat and talk with friends all within 10 to 15 minutes,” he says. “They then take their tray to the garbage cans and dispose of what they didn’t want, but more often, what they didn’t have time to eat. We see waste from students’ lunch boxes brought from home, too.”

Breakfast waste is another problem that SDJ would like to continue to try and solve. Degan says the proposed change to offer half a cup of fruit in breakfasts served outside the cafeteria would help reduce waste at the elementary level because a lot of younger students aren’t able to finish all the food that is required in the meal.

“For kindergarteners [and] first- and second-graders, a full cup of fruit (often served as two different items), carton of milk and one to two grain servings can be more than they are able to eat in the morning,” he says. “Allowing schools to offer a half-cup of fruit outside of the cafeteria would decrease waste at breakfast. The SDJ elementary schools provide breakfast in the classroom, and we would take advantage of offering a half-cup of fruit for our elementary students.”

Another proposed change Degan agrees with is switching to a risk-based administrative review cycle through which lower-risk School Food Authorities could be reviewed less frequently to allow state agencies to focus on providing technical assistance, training and more.

“State agencies and school food authorities have struggled with keeping up on a three-year review cycle,” says Degan, adding that it took him and his team 80 hours to prepare for their last administrative review. “We had three boxes waiting for our state agency when they visited us,” he says. “Nutrition staff enjoy working with children on a daily basis. Allowing state agencies the time for providing technical assistance, training school nutrition staff and training directors should be a higher priority.”

Serving quality meals whether or not changes are made
Regardless of which changes actually go into effect, operators say they will keep serving the healthful meals that students have come to expect.

“We will continue to serve the same high-quality, nutritious meals that we currently serve and keep finding new ways to improve our programs while serving the nation’s healthiest school meals,” says Joe Urban, director of food and nutrition services for Greenville County Schools in Greenville, S.C. “In Greenville County Schools, we have always exceeded the nutritional requirements of USDA, and we will continue to do so if these proposed USDA rule changes are put in place, while at the same time serving delicious food that our students love.”