Lunchtime favorites back in schools as restraints relaxed
Is white bread about to make a comeback on school lunch menus?
After complaints of gritty macaroni and cardboard pizza crusts, the Trump administration rolled back a rule that required foods such as pasta and bread be made with whole grains. The cafeteria directors who lobbied for the change say they just want greater flexibility to serve foods such as white bread – which are more processed and have less fiber – when whole grains don’t work.
In Vermont, the relaxed rule means white rice will be served with beans again. In Oregon, macaroni and cheese may return. And in South Dakota, students may notice a change with their soup.
“The staff asked right away, ‘Oh my God, can we go back to the other saltines?’ ” said Gay Anderson, a school lunch director and president of the School Nutrition Association, which represents cafeteria operators and suppliers like Domino’s and Kellogg.
The rollback addresses rules on grains, milk and salt championed by former first lady Michelle Obama.
Since 2014, schools had been required to serve only whole grain versions of food as part of the national school lunch program, a critical source of free and reduced-price meals for millions of children. The idea is that whole grains would be more nourishing and help cultivate healthy habits amid alarming obesity rates.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, which is among the parties suing over the rollback, notes the standards were based on the government’s own dietary guidelines and that most schools were successfully meeting them.
But cafeteria operators said the rule was unrealistic, and that many students are used to the refined grains they eat at home. They said costs were higher, cooking was more difficult and that students were throwing away more food. The School Nutrition Association said it’s more important that children who rely on the lunches eat something, and that the rule ignored cultural preferences, such as for flour tortillas in the Southwest or for white rice among Asian students.
To ease the transition to whole grains, the U.S. Department of Agriculture let schools apply for temporary waivers to serve select dishes that didn’t meet the whole-grain rule. For the last school year, it said about 20 percent of districts asked permission to serve refined grains that are enriched to add back some nutrients.
Among the frequently waived foods were pasta, pizza, tortillas and biscuits, which one Georgia lunch official joked affects the “tests scores of rednecks,” according to records obtained by The Associated Press from state agencies. Other waived foods included beignets, cinnamon rolls, corn dogs, sugar cookies and Pop Tarts.
One district requested a waiver for croissants because it said students don’t like the whole-grain version.
“Plus they are 20 cents more per serving,” the district said.
Then in December, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said the USDA was going back to the old standard: At least half of grain foods must be rich in whole grains. The agency said that does away with the red tape of making schools get waivers, and gives schools more flexibility to offer wholesome meals that also reduce food waste.