The U.S. Department of Agriculture has followed through on a pledge made last year to make permanent the current flexibility that allows schools to serve larger portions of lean protein and whole grains at mealtime. The USDA first granted flexibility in the program in December 2012, acknowledging difficulties encountered by states and schools in serving meals that fit within the weekly minimum and maximum serving ranges for grains and meat/meat alternates as established in standards announced in April 2012 and implemented with the beginning of the 2012-13 school year.

“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,” said Kevin Concannon, Agriculture Undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services. “We have delivered on that promise.”

The USDA said it worked closely with schools and parents during the transition to healthier breakfasts, lunches and snacks. Following feedback from consumers, the USDA implemented several updates to school meal standards, including additional flexibility in meeting the daily and weekly ranges for grain and meat/meat alternates, which has been available to schools on a temporary basis since 2012.

“SFAs (school food authorities) reported that for both grains and meat/meat alternates, some popular products are not yet readily available from suppliers in the wide ranges of serving sizes needed to meet the grain and meat/meat alternate weekly maximum requirements,” the Food and Nutrition Service of the USDA said in a Jan. 3, 2014, notice published in the Federal Register. “Additionally, SFAs have reported that they are experiencing challenges with student acceptability of new items and smaller servings of items on their menus.”

The FNS noted in the Federal Register that the added flexibility on weekly maximum servings of grains and meat/meat alternates will benefit SFAs “who may continue to rely on prepared foods or recipes that ensure compliance with daily and weekly minimum quantities but may exceed weekly maximums in some weeks. However, because the meal patterns’ weekly calorie requirements remain in place, the added flexibility on grains and meat/meat alternates is unlikely to have a significant effect on the overall quantity of food served, the cost of acquiring that food, or the nutritional profiles of the meals served.”

The final rule will take effect March 4, 2014.