USDA's school lunch program will again deviate from its plan first proposed more than three years ago as the agency on Tuesday approved more flexibility for whole-grain requirements, the second such flexibility announcement driven by schools' complaints about the program.
Agriculture Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon said the new flexibility would allow schools that demonstrate significant challenges in serving whole-grain rich pastas to continue serving traditional enriched pasta products for up to two more years.
According to a USDA statement, the "whole grain rich products currently on the market did not hold together when produced in large quantities for school cafeterias," degrading easily during preparation and service.
The announcement follows USDA's January decision that allowed schools to serve larger portions of lean protein and whole grains, in response to concerns voiced by schools, lawmakers and parents.
"Schools raised legitimate concerns that acceptable whole-grain rich pasta products were not available. We worked to find a solution which will allow more time for industry to develop products that will work for schools," Concannon said in a statement.
"We continue to listen and work closely with schools and parents to implement common sense nutritional guidance that supports a healthier next generation. But, with one third of American children fighting obesity, we cannot accept politically motivated efforts to undermine standards and deny kids healthier options."
Aimed at curbing childhood obesity and health issues, the federal standards require schools to serve whole grains and more fruits and vegetables. According to USDA, increased consumption of whole grain foods is a key factor in helping lower childhood obesity and reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic diseases.
USDA plans to continue to enforce its policy that all grains and breads served in school meals must be "whole-grain rich" – meaning that they contain at least 50% whole grain meal and/or flour, and schools will be required to obtain approval from their state to use the flexibility.
USDA expects new whole-grain rich pastas made from blends of whole grain and enriched flours to soon replace pastas and other items that schools struggled to prepare, though they are still emerging in the marketplace.
"USDA recognizes that USDA Foods and industry may need additional time to develop a range of acceptable whole grain-rich pastas," the agency explained, affirming that the two-year flexibility will be enforced.