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USDA relaxes school lunch rules after backlash

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — U.S. regulators said on Thursday they were permanently relaxing school meal rules that were designed to combat childhood obesity by reining in calories and portion sizes but aroused complaints the policies caused students to go hungry.

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture had initially loosened the rules in late 2012, suspending daily and weekly maximum amounts for grains and meat or meat alternatives. That allowed school districts to service larger portions without penalty.

“Earlier this school year, USDA made a commitment to school nutrition professionals that we would make the meat and grain flexibility permanent and provide needed stability for long-term planning. We have delivered on that promise,” Kevin Concannon, USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, said in a statement.

The announcement was welcomed by North Dakota Republican Sen. John Hoeven, who had introduced a bill with Arkansas Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor to make the changes permanent.

“Today, the USDA made the permanent changes we have been seeking to the School Lunch Program,” Hoeven said in a statement. “A one-size-fits-all approach to school lunch left students hungry and school districts frustrated with the additional expense, paperwork and nutritional research necessary to meet federal requirements. These are exactly the changes included in our Sensible School Lunch Act.”

Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D.  Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., introduced similar legislation in the House.

“Making sure our kids are healthy is a top priority, but making sure they don't go hungry is critical as well," Noem said Thursday in a written statement. "The USDA's announcement comes after a tremendous amount of pressure from parents, school administrators, and Congress. What they are offering is a step in the right direction and adopts some of the provisions offered in my bill to give relief."  

Despite the USDA calling the newly relaxed rules permanent, Noem said "a more permanent legislative fix and even greater flexibility is still needed."

The rules had initially been adopted in 2012 as part of a law designed to improve school breakfasts and lunches. The modifications were aimed at limiting fat and salt, reducing portion sizes and increasing fruit and vegetable servings. Some 31 million children in the United States receive free or low-cost school lunches and more than 10 million get free or discounted breakfasts.

Schools are an important focus because they provide meals to many low-income students, considered to be often the most at risk for being overweight or obese.