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USDA will allow more meat, grains in school lunches following criticism

Let them eat meat.

The Agriculture Department plans to do away with limits on the amount of meats and grains that students can have in their school lunches, following complaints from parents and lawmakers alike.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wrote to members of Congress Friday announcing that his department would scrap daily and weekly maximums for the foods. It comes after lawmakers wrote to his department saying kids weren’t getting enough to eat under the rules, and school administrators complained that the regulations were hindering their ability to plan daily meals.

"This flexibility is being provided to allow more time for the development of products that fit within the new standards while granting schools additional weekly menu planning options to help ensure that children receive a wholesome, nutritious meal every day of the week," Vilsack said in a letter to Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.

The new guidelines, which took effect in September, were intended to address increasing childhood obesity levels. They set limits on calories and salt and phase in whole grains. Schools must offer at least one vegetable or fruit per meal. The department also dictated how much of certain food groups could be served.

While nutritionists and some parents have praised the new school lunch standards, others, including many conservative lawmakers, refer to them as government overreach.

The rules triggered a burst of news coverage this past fall regarding students who complained they weren’t getting enough food, and even the parody YouTube video “We Are Hungry,” posted by students in Kansas.

Though broader calorie limits are still in place, the rules tweak will allow school lunch planners to use as many grains and as much meat as they want. In comments to USDA, many had said grains shouldn't be limited because they are a part of so many meals, and that it was difficult to always find the right size of meat.

The new tweak doesn't upset nutritionists who fought for the school lunch overhaul.

Margo Wootan, a nutrition lobbyist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says the change is minor and the new guidance shows that USDA will work with school nutrition officials and others who have concerns.

"It takes time to work out the kinks," Wootan said. "This should show Congress that they don't need to interfere legislatively."

Congress has already interfered with the rules. Last year, after USDA first proposed the new guidelines, Congress prohibited USDA from limiting potatoes and French fries and allowed school lunchrooms to continue counting tomato paste on pizza as a vegetable.

The school lunch rules apply to federally subsidized lunches served to low-income children. Those meals have always been subject to nutritional guidelines because they are partially paid for by the federal government, but the new rules put broader restrictions on what could be served as childhood obesity rates have skyrocketed.

School kids can still buy additional foods in other parts of the lunchroom and the school. Congress two years ago directed USDA to regulate those foods as well, but the department has yet to issue those rules.
Montana Sen. Jon Tester, a Democratic senator among the lawmakers who wrote to USDA about the rules, praised the move.

"Schools need flexibility to make sure kids get the nutrition they need to focus on their studies," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.