CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal school meal regulations that were originally designed to combat childhood obesity are now less strict, meaning bigger portions of certain foods for students in West Virginia and across the country.
In 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture loosened rules on its newly designated maximums for the amount of grains and proteins in school meals, after hearing complaints that the restrictions left many students still hungry and created extra work for school districts.
Last week, the USDA announced that flexibility would become permanent, allowing school districts to serve larger portions of lean meats and whole grains without being penalized.
"It basically forced schools to offer more fruits and vegetables. But it was a pretty fine line to meet the minimum and not exceed the maximum, and when the schools started to write those new menus, they had a hard time," said Linda St. Clair, a registered dietitian who works for the West Virginia Department of Education's Office of Child Nutrition.
In addition to students wanting more food and school officials struggling to calculate the specific requirements, St. Clair said there was another issue: Schools were adding nutritionally empty foods to meet meal requirements because adding anything else would put them over their allowed limit.
"So what we saw was, they were adding things like gelatin and sherbet -- things that wouldn't affect any of the other numbers, but weren't all that great nutritionally because they couldn't add any grain or meat or saturated fat," she said.
Now, the changes could mean the addition of yogurt or cottage cheese to a school's salad bar, or increasing the size of the whole-grain rolls often served with lunch, St. Clair said.
"I've never seen the USDA quite this responsive. When they started hearing from the states what was going on, they immediately modified it," she said.