WASHINGTON — The Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture has proposed a new rule that would revise the meal patterns and nutrition requirements for the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program to align them with the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The proposed rule, which was published in the Jan. 13 issue of the Federal Register, would increase the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free and low-fat fluid milk in school meals; reduce the levels of sodium and saturated fat in meals; and help meet the nutrition needs of school children within their calorie requirements.
“Implementation of this proposed rule would result in more nutritious school meals that improve the dietary habits of school children and protect their health,” the F.N.S. said.

The proposed changes are based on the 2009 Institute of Medicine (I.O.M.) report, “School Meals: Building Blocks for Healthy Children” and fit into the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 signed into law by President Obama on Dec. 13 Although the changes take into account the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the F.N.S. said possible additional changes to the school meal requirements may be coming once the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans are released later this year. The 2010 edition of the guidelines, which was not available to the I.O.M. for consideration, is expected to have a significant impact on the meal requirements for sodium, saturated fat and vegetable subgroups.

Under the proposed rule, the requirement for fruits for breakfast would double to 1 cup per day from ½ cup per day previously, while the amount of grains required would increase by nearly 80% over current levels, with a proposed requirement that at least half of the grains be whole grains. The current requirement of 1 cup of milk would be slightly altered to 1 cup, fat content of milk to be 1% or less.

For lunch, the greatest change would be an increase in fruits and vegetables, from ½ to 1 cup of fruit and vegetables combined per day to ¾ cup to 1 cup of vegetables plus ½ to 1 cup of fruit per day — an increase of nearly four half-cup servings per week. The proposed requirement also would call for dark green and orange vegetables and legumes and limits on starchy vegetables. For meat and meat alternatives, the proposed minimum daily requirement would be raised to 1.6 to 2.4 oz equivalents, up from 1.5 to 3 oz equivalents. The proposed rules for whole grains and milk would be similar to those requirements set forth for breakfast.

Looking specifically at the different food and beverage groups within the programs, the F.N.S. provided detail on proposals.

For fruits and vegetables, the two components have been separated and quantity requirements increased to promote children’s intake of fiber and other important nutrients such as potassium and magnesium.

“To facilitate school’s compliance with the fruits requirement, schools would be allowed to offer fruit that is fresh, frozen without sugar, dried, or canned in fruit juice, water, or light syrup,” the F.N.S. said. “To confer fiber benefits, it is important to meet the fruits component with whole fruit whenever possible. However, schools would be able to offer pasteurized, full strength (100%) fruit juice, as currently defined, to meet up to one-half of the fruits requirement. Products that contain less than 100% juice would be allowed.”

Additionally, the F.N.S. proposed schools offer weekly at lunch at least ½ cup equivalent of each of the following vegetable subgroups: dark green, orange and legumes (dry beans). Meanwhile, starchy vegetables such as white potatoes, corn, lima beans and green peas would be limited to 1 cup per week.

For whole grains, the F.N.S. has proposed requirements in a “staged approach.” Upon implementation of the final rule, half of the grains offered during the school week must be whole grain. Two years post implementation of the final rule, all grains offered during the school week must be whole grain rich. According to the F.N.S. the staged approach helps alleviate some concerns regarding whole grain product availability, product labeling and student acceptability.

The criteria used to identify whole grain rich foods served in school meals would be established in F.N.S. guidance, and could be revised in policy as more information becomes available on the food label by the voluntary addition of whole grain information by industry or by the Food and Drug Administration. The F.N.S. also noted that the proposed rule would continue to allow schools the option of meeting part of the weekly grains requirement with a grain-based dessert.

For milk, the proposed rule would not allow flavored low-fat fluid milk because it increases both saturated fat and calories, but flavored fat-free fluid milk would be allowed because calcium is a nutrient of concern and the use of flavors encourages children to drink more fluid milk, the F.N.S. noted. The proposed rule also would no longer allow schools to offer whole milk or reduced-fat fluid milk as part of the reimbursable meal.

The F.N.S. also set forth proposed rules for dietary components. The proposed minimum and maximum calorie levels for breakfast were set at 350 to 500 for kindergarten through fifth grade; 400 to 550 for sixth grade through eighth grade; and 450 to 600 for ninth grade through twelfth grade. For lunch, the proposed calorie levels were set at 550 to 650 for kindergarten through fifth grade; 600 to 700 for sixth grade through eighth grade; and 750 to 850 for ninth grade through twelfth grade.

“The intent of this proposed change is not to reduce children’s intake of food, but to avoid excessive calories,” the F.N.S. said. “The meal patterns proposed in this rulemaking would require increased amounts of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Combined with calorie maximums, U.S.D.A. believes that these increased food requirements leave relatively few discretionary calories for fats and added sugars.”

For saturated fat, the proposed rule would remain that all individuals consume less than 10% of total calories from saturated fat.

Major changes have been proposed for reducing the sodium content of school meals, and the F.N.S. has set forth a timeline with sodium targets for two years, four years and 10 years after implementation. If implemented, the rule in 10 years would reduce sodium levels in the School Breakfast Program between 25% and 27% from current levels, while levels in the School Lunch Program would be cut by 53% to 54% during the same time frame.

“These reductions are consistent with public health initiatives aiming to reduce sodium in the nation’s food supply over the next 10 years, or a reduction of approximately 5% per year,” the F.N.S. said. “Such reductions are widely supported by the American Public Health Association and by efforts such as New York City’s National Sodium Reduction Initiative. Nearly all schools would need to reduce the sodium content of school meals to meet the proposed intermediate and final sodium targets. The changes necessary will vary by school/district because currently there is no sodium limit for school meals and each school/district will be starting from a different baseline.”

The proposed rule will be open for a 90-day comment period ending April 13 in which interested parties may submit comments to the F.N.S. through the Federal eRulemaking Portal at www.regulations.gov.