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Flexibility in School Lunches

USDA Allows For More Flexibility in School Lunches

As you likely recall, USDA has implemented new school meal guidelines that went in to effect this current school year.  In case you are a bit foggy on these new guidelines, USDA is now requiring school nutrition directors to add more fruit, vegetables, whole grains to meals and reduce sodium levels to lunches.  Now, there is a new twist.  In December, USDA announced that it will allow schools flexibility in menu planning regarding meat/meat alternates and grains at lunch for the rest of the school year.  This change will temporarily suspend the weekly maximum amounts for these food groups, but will leave the caps in place for the overall calorie amounts of the lunches.

What does this change really mean??? Simply stated, this change will allow the school nutrition directors more flexibility in planning their menus.  They will still need to keep the calories under the maximum caps designated for each age group.  However, now the directors do not have their hands tied when it comes to selecting the number of meat/meat alternates and grains to add to the menu.  For example, prior to this change, some schools had reported that they had difficulty offering cheeseburgers, sandwiches with meat (e.g. turkey) and cheese, and adding yogurt to fruit plate.  All of these options would put the lunch over the maximum amount for meat/meat alternates.   For grains, challenges occurred if school nutrition directors wanted to serve a grain as part of an entrée, as a side dish (e.g. rice or roll) or both.

As of now, this change only applies for the current school year.   According to USDA’s guidance memo, Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) will “continue to monitor implementation data” from school nutrition directors and determine if “adjustments beyond the current School Year are necessary.”

As with any change, there is always a need for patience and understanding.  School nutrition directors around the country are striving to implement these new healthy school lunch guidelines to the best of their ability.  The positive is at least USDA/FNS are being open and understanding about the potential need for change and flexibility as these guidelines are being put into action.

For more information:

The School Nutrition Association’s press release


An Associated Press article on the changes that ran in several newspapers


Next on the school nutrition guideline horizon….new school breakfast guidelines which will go in to effect at the start of next school year (2013-14).

Christine M. Cliff, MPH, RD LDN

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