For the rest of the school year, schools will be allowed to serve as much meat and grains as they want, as long as they don't exceed per-meal limits on total calories. Meal planners welcome the flexibility but still have concerns about the Health Hunger-Free Kids Act, which went into effect this year.
"Part of me is happy and part of me is just frustrated," said Sandi Kramer, child nutrition supervisor for the Yankton (S.D.) School District. "I'm glad they're listening to us; I just wish they'd listened to us sooner."
The meal guidelines have forced schools to double the amount of fruits and vegetables they serve while capping calories and cutting back on sodium.
School officials say students now are throwing away much of their meals, particularly the fresh produce, and the 850-calorie limit on high school meals are leaving many students hungry, especially athletes. Kindergarteners to fifth-graders have a 650-calorie cap; sixth- to eighth-graders have a 700-calorie cap.
"They'll throw away like this cooked squash, the lentils, the cooked spinach and broccoli," said a student at Niagara Falls High School in New York. Other kids at high schools in her area concurred: If they don't want it, it goes in the trash.
Brandon Valley schools in South Dakota have studied their food waste and found 30% of fruits and more than 50% of vegetables served end up in the trash.
"The waste is extremely high," said Gay Anderson, Brandon Valley's food service director. "We need to fix that."
The biggest concern for nutritionists is new limits on grains and meats or meat alternatives, according to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
"This flexibility is being provided to allow more time for the development of products that fit within the new standards while granting schools additional weekly menu planning options to help ensure that children receive a wholesome, nutritious meal every day of the week," Vilsack wrote in a letter Friday to members of Congress.
Brandon Valley used to allow students to take an extra slice of bread to fill up. Officials stopped doing so this year when limits on grains went into effect. They might bring the option back now but are leery of making too many changes.
Although schools now can hand out extra bread or increase meat portion sizes, Anderson said they still have to watch that they don't exceed calorie maximums.
In Yankton, Kramer plans to incorporate more meat or bread on occasion. She tries to get as close as possible to the 850-calorie limit for high school meals, and a couple times a month has used small servings of pudding or Jell-O to do it. The USDA's recent decision will allow her to serve a larger bun or serving of meat instead.
But Kramer would like to see more changes, such as a modest increase in the calorie ceiling. She also finds it difficult to find legumes that students will eat and thinks three-quarters of a cup of vegetables is too much for elementary school students.
Anderson wants the USDA to relax its limits on protein for school breakfasts.-
In addressing the problem of hungry students, Vilsack gave no indication the USDA would move on calorie limits. Instead, he suggested families and sports teams bring food to supplement the taxpayer-subsidized meals, and noted that students are allowed to buy additional food at school.
"New school meals are designed to meet only a portion of a child's nutritional needs over the course of the school day," Vilsack wrote.
The Government Accountability Office recently agreed to study how the meal changes have been put in place across the country.
(Contributing: Mary Friona, WGRZ-TV, Buffalo, N.Y.)
(Copyright © 2012 USA TODAY)