Schools get time to noodle with whole grain options

Schools get time to noodle with whole grain options

(District of Columbia) Schools that can demonstrate significant challenges in serving whole-grain rich pastas are receiving some leeway from the U.S. Department of Agriculture over the next two years.

The current requirement is that 50 percent of all grain products such as breads and pastas be wholegrain-rich, meaning that they contain at least 50 percent whole grain meal or flour.

In an announcement made Tuesday, districts would be given through the 2015-16 school year to meet the requirement that 100 percent of all grains and breads – especially pasta dishes – served in schools be comprised of whole grain-rich grain products.

The push for whole grains in schools comes from the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, championed by first lady Michelle Obama, which aims to reduce childhood obesity by lowering calorie intake, increasing the variety of fruits and vegetables served, and including more whole grain products.

“USDA is focused on improving children’s health and empowering schools with the tools they need to continue to meet improved meal standards,” said Kevin Concannon, secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services in an announcement.

The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which received bipartisan support, was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2010. But the effort has since faced challenges including the overall cost of meeting the new mandate.

Although schools receive an additional 6 cents per meal to subsidize the costs of providing healthier breakfasts and lunches, the Congressional Budget Office estimated schools would lose $100 million a year in revenue as a result of declining sales from in vending machines and the a la carte line.

Still, The USDA says that school lunch revenue has actually increased in the first year of implementing healthier options. A USDA analysis suggests schools saw a net increase in revenue from school lunches of approximately $200 million because of a combination of factors, including the hike in the state and federal support and increases in student meal purchases.

Temporary flexibility was granted for pastas because many schools said that certain types of available whole grain choices, including lasagna and elbow noodles, degraded easily during preparation and service, and were difficult to use in larger-scale cooking operations. Whole grain-rich pastas made from blends of whole grain and enriched flours maintain better consistency, but are still emerging in the marketplace.

This isn’t the first time the USDA has allowed some flexibility with transitions made in school cafeterias. It chose to gradually phase in the standards opposed to implementing them all at once, and in January, permanently eliminated serving size restrictions on grains and proteins.

 “Over 90 percent of schools report they are successfully meeting the updated nutrition standards,” the USDA statement read. “(And) a recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health shows that children are already choosing to eat healthier foods, including more fruits and vegetables, as a result.”

“School districts that wish to take advantage of this two-year flexibility must obtain approval from their state agency by demonstrating that they experienced significant challenges in preparing and serving whole grain-rich pasta products in their schools,” the announcement reads. “This is a temporary flexibility intended to provide additional time for the development of acceptable whole grain products that meet USDA’s science-based standards.”

The USDA released a guide to meeting the whole grain-rich criteria in January which outlined the grain requirement for schools, what is considered whole grain, how to incorporate whole grain products and how to determine if those products meet whole grain-rich requirements.

Health benefits from children eating whole grain-rich foods include lowered rates of childhood obesity and a reduced the risk of heart disease, diabetes and other chronic diseases.

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