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USDA loosens limits on school lunch portions

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.

The subject of well-balanced school meals is especially important in West Virginia, where childhood obesity rates are among the highest in the country and more than 60 percent of public school students qualify for free and reduced-price meals.

"What we were always hearing was that the kids are starving and we're throwing away too much food. But what they want is more chicken nuggets and less veggies, and that wasn't going to happen," St. Clair said. "The USDA felt really strongly about introducing those fruits and vegetables to children in schools in early grades. I guess if you never really force it to happen, it won't happen. If you always give them more pizza, they'll want pizza. They really had to hold their ground on that one."

St. Clair said the state Department of Education helps districts estimate how much food they'll need to prepare in order to avoid waste, and the food thrown out is typically produce that can't be saved or donated.

While the USDA's decision gives schools more flexibility in designing their menus, the rules governing school meals are far from lax, St. Clair urged.

For example, schools must serve a certain amount of fruit and red/orange and dark green vegetables; all grain products must be at least 50 percent whole grain; and in high schools, the maximum amount of calories allowed at lunch is 850.

Now, the USDA will begin to focus more on regulating sodium intake in schools.

"Schools can design their menu, but there's not as much leeway as it used to be. It's much more structured than it's ever been," St. Clair said.

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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