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POLK COUNTY — On Jan. 23, the United States Department of Agriculture published several proposed changes to the National School Lunch Program in an attempt to simplify the meal service and monitoring requirements of school lunches across the nation.

An overall reform to the NSLP came in 2010, when former First Lady Michelle Obama created the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, a statute that allowed the USDA to reform school lunch and breakfast programs by creating requirements such as certain fruit, vegetable and whole grain servings, a minimum daily grain requirement, only allowing nonfat or 1 percent milk, and lower sodium and trans fat mandates — raising the standards of the NSLP for the first time in 15 years.

In 2018, under President Donald Trump, the USDA rolled back those standards set in place by the HHFKA, and now, official proposals have been published that outlines those changes.

Some of them are: Lowering the whole-wheat requirement to 51 percent; allowing what is considered a vegetable, such as legumes, to be considered a meat alternative and be counted toward the weekly vegetable requirement; pasta made of vegetable flour can count as a vegetable; flavored water will be counted toward the daily requirements for water intake.

According to the Federal Register, “The proposed changes, including optional flexibilities, are customer-focused and intended to help state and local program operators overcome operational challenges that limit their ability to manage these programs efficiently. In the National School Lunch Program, the proposed rule would add flexibility to the existing vegetable subgroups requirement. In the School Breakfast Program, the proposed rule would make it easier for menu planners to offer meats/meat alternates and grains interchangeably (without offering a minimum grains requirement daily), and would allow schools to offer 1⁄2 cup of fruit in breakfasts served outside the cafeteria to reduce food waste.”

Alex Singer, director of nutritional services for Central School District, said these changes will allow overall program flexibility to give kids what they need without compromising on nutrition.

“The HHFKA was a step in the right direction,” he said. “Some things they didn’t know until they tried it. These proposed changes are an overall course correction — evening everything out so that it makes more sense, and so it’s easier to apply.”

He said he doesn’t think these proposals, if passed, would completely derail what has been in place for the last 10 years.

“Are there some things from the HHFKA that I want to stay the same?” Singer said. “Yes. And we can’t go back too many steps — that would be bad. These changes are fine-tuning what’s already in place.”

Since these proposals were published, there has been backlash in the form of concern that these changes could mean the 4.8 billion lunches served to children over a school year won’t meet the dietary guidelines for Americans, especially in regards to the new sodium and whole-grain standards, which, under the proposal, would increase the daily minimum amount of sodium and relax the whole grains standard from 100 percent to 51 percent.

American Heart Association’s CEO Nancy Brown stated, “This new rule is described as an effort to give the nation’s schools more ‘flexibility’ on what foods to serve our children. But the truth is it would revoke school nutrition standards that will help kids attain better long-term health and academic success. We urge the USDA to leave these important nutrition standards intact and reconsider taking this action.”

So how will these changes, if passed through legislation, affect the schools in Polk County?

It’s hard to say right now.

“We are less certain about what that may mean for our school district since this information is so new,” said Andy Bellando, interim superintendent for Dallas School District. “We just don’t have enough information yet.”

The proposals go through legislation on March 23 and, until then, people can submit public comment on their thoughts about what is being proposed.

Make your voice heard

Comments may be submitted in writing by one of the following methods:

Federal eRulemaking Portal: go to  www.regulations.gov. and follow the instructions to submit a comment.

Regular U.S. mail: School Programs Branch, Policy and Program Development Division, Food and Nutrition Service, P.O. Box 2885, Fairfax, VA 22031.

Overnight, courier, or hand delivery: School Programs Branch, Policy and Program Development Division, Food and Nutrition Service, 1320 Braddock Place, 4th floor, Alexandria, VA 22314.

All written comments will be included in the record and will be made available to the public at www.regulations.gov.

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