On Friday, Jan. 17, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a new proposed rule to modify school nutrition standards established under the Obama administration, citing challenges in the implementation of current standards identified by state and local program operators.
Under the proposed rule, schools would have greater leeway in meeting the existing vegetable subgroups requirement, which currently calls for schools to provide higher quantities of nutrient-dense vegetables (such as bell peppers and carrots). Schools would also have more flexibility in determining fruit serving sizes for breakfast, allowing half of a cup of fruit to be served for breakfast outside of school cafeterias instead of the one cup of fruit currently required. Additionally, the proposed rule, citing concerns around food waste in schools, would permit students to purchase more a la carte entree items.
Since the proposed rule’s release, concerns have been raised that the changes could lead to schools offering less healthy options to students. For example, modifications to the vegetable subgroup requirements would allow schools to serve starchy vegetables, like french fries, instead of more nutritiously dense options. For breakfasts served outside of the cafeteria, schools would have the option to serve less healthy options, like processed granola bars, alongside the reduced fruit amounts.
Reducing childhood obesity in Arkansas has been a challenge, despite consistent efforts dating back to 2003, when the state became one of the first to require schools to collect and report students’ body mass indices to parents. Obesity interventions in childhood remain a focus of Healthy Active Arkansas, an initiative that seeks to increase the number of Arkansans at a healthy weight. Schools in the state have already had to meet existing USDA nutrition standards to qualify for federal funding for school meals; the proposed changes would diminish the effectiveness of recent policy efforts — including support of a farm-to-school program and an increase in school recess time — to reduce obesity among our youth.
Along with the proposed changes to school nutrition standards, the USDA also released a proposed rule regarding the Summer Food Service Program. The proposed rule states that amended regulations are intended to “strengthen program integrity by codifying in regulations changes that have been tested through policy guidance and by streamlining requirements among Child Nutrition Programs.” Proposed changes include allowing schools greater flexibility in determining meal times and offerings and allowing students to take nonperishable foods offsite.