WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture has responded to criticism over new school lunch rules by agreeing to lift its limitations on caloric intake of grains and starches, as well as protein. The move, which is only in place for the 2012-13 school year, is expected to lend more flexibility to schools and students.

In a Dec. 7 letter to regional and state directors of special nutrition programs and child nutrition programs, Cynthia Long, director of the Child Nutrition Division of the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S.D.A., said there is no change in the method of measuring the required daily minimum quantities for grains or meats/meat alternatives. But given the complexity of calculating the grains and meats/meat alternates components and to allow for more time for suppliers to more widely offer a broader array of serving options “state agencies should consider any (School Food Authorities) compliant with the component requirements for grains and meat/meat alternates if the menu is compliant with the daily and weekly minimums for these two components, regardless of whether they have exceeded the maximums for the same components,” Ms. Long wrote.

Commenting on the operational challenges relating to grains, Ms. Long said the F.N.S. understands that it may be difficult for S.F.A.s to offer meals with relatively large grain items on the same day as meals with smaller grain items and stay within the weekly ranges.

“Some S.F.A.s report that they have been forced to standardize their grain serving sizes to achieve compliance,” she said. “This has limited menu planners’ flexibility and in some cases has unintentionally precluded offering popular items such as sandwiches on a daily basis. In addition, some S.F.A.s have reported that at present popular grain products such as rolls and bread may not be readily available from suppliers in the wide range of serving sizes needed to meet the grain range weekly requirements, thus exacerbating planning challenges.”

As a result of some of the challenges with meat/meat alternates, Ms. Long wrote that some S.F.A.s have had limited service of popular food items such as hamburgers and bone-in chicken breasts. And, as with grains, S.F.A.s have said some of the meat/meat alternate products used frequently are not yet available from suppliers in a useful range of sizes.

“We understand that this is a year of transition, and state agencies are encouraged to work with S.F.A.s to assist them in meeting the new requirements,” Ms. Long said. “The flexibility in the assessment approach reflected in this memorandum will facilitate implementation in SY 2012-13. F.N.S. will continue to monitor implementation data and feedback from S.F.A.s and state agencies to determine whether the appropriate approach is being used to measure compliance, and whether other adjustments beyond the current school year prove necessary.”

For complete coverage of the changes see the Dec. 18 issue of Food Business News.