USDA Weakens Healthy School Lunch Rules To Allow Unlimited Meats and Grains

Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack conceded on Friday that revamped school lunches will allow unlimited grains and meats, in a move to appease critics of healthier school lunch standards. Conservative critics of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act have claimed USDA standards are too stringent, pointing to some school officials’ and students’ complaints over the lunches calorie caps. In his letter addressed to a number of senators from agricultural states, Vilsack said more “felixibility is being provided to allow more time for the development of products […] while granting schools additional weekly menu planning options.” But he also responded to a chief criticism of the calorie caps, noting that school lunches meet only a portion of the child’s nutrition:

It is important to point out that the new school meals are designed to meet only a portion of a child’s nutritional needs over the course of the school day. This should come as no surprise — students never have and never will get all of their daily dietary needs from a single meal. School breakfasts and lunches are designed to meet roughly one-fourth and one-third, respectively, of the daily calorie needs of school children.

Since schools still must meet overall calorie caps if they serve more meat and grains, the concession might not do much to appease conservatives like Steve King (R-IA), who called Michelle Obama’s healthy lunch initiative a “misguided nanny state.” A nutritionist who fought for the healthy lunch standards said the change is minor and serves to show Congress it doesn’t need to interfere.

The school lunch standards follow the recommendations of experts at the Institute of Medicine to ensure kids have enough fruits, vegetables, and whole grain foods. But until the USDA releases its rules for vending machines and school stores, school kids can still access more than their fill of junk food.