USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack on Friday answered the complaints of lawmakers and school administrators when he submitted a letter to Sen. John Hoeven announcing that regulations regarding meats and grains in school lunches would be updated.
Vilsack's response addressed a Nov. 19 complaint letter from Sen. Hoeven and colleagues.
In the response letter, Vilsack said the "top operational challenge" schools have experienced is serving meals that fit within the weekly minimum and maximum serving ranges for grains and meat or meat alternate. To address the problem, schools will now be considered in compliance as long as they meet the minimum and regardless of exceeding the maximum.
"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 wrote.
Additionally, Vilsack addressed concerns about portion size, explaining that active students that need more to eat should be provided with after-school snacks, and the option to supplement the school meal with a la carte items.
The question of portion size has been a sticking point for many, with several legislators touting the new standards as "one-size-fits-all." However, Vilsack said school meals were intended to be only a portion of the daily dietary intake, and meals are distributed according to grade and age.
"I appreciate your specific questions about the nutritional needs of individual children," Vilsack wrote. "It is important to point out that the new school meals are designed to meet only a portion of a child's nutritional needs over the course of the school day."
Vilsack stressed that school meals, and the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, are both in place to provide children with the most wholesome meal possible.
"The primary responsibility for instilling healthy eating habits in America's kids will always lie with parents, communities, and children themselves. But when spending taxpayer dollars on school meals, we have a responsibility to ensure we are supporting those efforts," Vilsack said.
Cost of the program, Vilsack says, is a challenge, which is why funding and new resources were provided through the HHFKA. He stressed that despite concerns, the additional resources "should provide enough revenue for schools to meet the new meal requirements."