Perdue: Add Grits, Remove Mandates on School Lunch Programs

Grits might not be the first food that comes to mind when you think about breakfast, but it’s a staple in the South. USDA Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, from Georgia, wants to see them added to the menu of the nation’s school lunch programs. But that’s just one change: He has others that are more far-reaching.

In a press conference at a Virginia elementary school during his first full week in office, Perdue applauded former first lady Michelle Obama for her efforts to reduce obesity through diet. However, he wants to make school lunches more appealing to students and remove some of the other anti-obesity measures pushed by the former administration. His proclamation begins the process of restoring local control of guidelines on whole grains, sodium, and milk.

“Such changes to school lunch menus are not nearly as dramatic as the full opt-out that Republicans have sought - a push that sparked a bitter, public fight with Obama in 2014 - but Perdue promised to look at some regulatory fixes,” Helena Bottemiller Evich with Politco said.

“This announcement is the result of years of feedback from students, schools, and food service experts about the challenges they are facing in meeting the final regulations for school meals,” Perdue said.  “If kids aren't eating the food, and it’s ending up in the trash, they aren't getting any nutrition – thus undermining the intent of the program.”

Patricia Montague, CEO of the School Nutrition Association said her organization has pushed for flexibility so schools can serve meals that are both nutritious and palatable.

“We don't want kids wasting their meals by throwing them away. Some of our schools are actually using that food waste as compost. That shouldn't be happening," she said in a news release from USDA.

USDA said schools face increasing fiscal burdens as they attempt to adhere to existing, stringent nutrition requirements. According to USDA figures, school food requirements cost school districts and states an additional $1.22 billion in Fiscal Year 2015. 

At the same time costs are going up, most states have seen a decrease in student participation in school lunches, as nationwide about one million students choose not to have a school lunch each day. This impacts schools in two ways: The decline in school lunch participation means reduced revenue to schools while they simultaneously are encountering increased costs.

“I was talking to some folks in Washington about this, and they said that the current program is working.  ‘How do you know?’ I asked.  They said it’s because 99 percent of schools are at least partially compliant.  Well, only in Washington can that be considered proof that the system is working as it was intended,” Perdue said.  “A perfect example is in the south, where the schools want to serve grits.  But the whole grain variety has little black flakes in it, and the kids won’t eat it.  The school is compliant with the whole grain requirements, but no one is eating the grits.  That doesn’t make any sense.”

The USDA said specific flexibilities include:

  • Whole grains:
    • Schools are experiencing challenges in finding the full range of products they need and that their students enjoy in whole grain-rich form. They need continued flexibility in meeting the whole grain requirements for school meals.
    • USDA will allow states to grant exemptions to schools experiencing hardship in serving 100 percent of grain products as whole-grain rich for School Year 2017-2018.  USDA will take all necessary regulatory actions to implement a long-term solution.
  • Sodium:
  • For School Years 2017-2018 through 2020, schools will not be required to meet Sodium Target 2. Instead, schools that meet Sodium Target 1 will be considered compliant.
  • The time frame will provide schools and the school nutrition industry with the certainty and predictability they need to make appropriate plans for creating foods with the appropriate amount of sodium.  During this period, USDA will take all necessary regulatory actions to implement a long-term solution.
  • USDA will dedicate significant resources to providing technical assistance to schools as they continue to develop menus that are low in sodium and appealing to students.
  • Milk is a key component of school meals, meaning schools must have more options for students who select milk as part of their lunch or breakfast.
  • Perdue will direct USDA to begin the regulatory process for schools to serve 1 percent flavored milk through the school meals programs.  USDA will seek to publish an interim rule as soon as possible to effect the change in milk policy.
  • Milk:

“I’ve got 14 grandchildren, and there is no way that I would propose something if I didn’t think it was good, healthful, and the right thing to do,” Perdue said.  “And here’s the thing about local control: it means that this new flexibility will give schools and states the option of doing what we’re laying out. These are not mandates on schools.”

USDA's Food and Nutrition Service administers 15 nutrition assistance programs that include the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and the Summer Food Service Program.