WASHINGTON, DC — As with most changes, the 2020 Dietary Guidelines (DGA) will have an impact on school nutrition. Thus, bakers need to prepare for some changes in the way their products are being prepared for school lunches.

Grain food consumption remained at 6-8 servings daily in the new DGA, with half of those being whole and the other half being enriched. But whole grains have now been endorsed as ‘essential to the plate,’ equating them in importance to fruits and vegetables.

Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations, School Nutrition Association (SNA), said that so far schools have done well with industry partners to make the transition to whole grains in breads, bowls and buns.

“But we definitely heard from our members who were struggling with what I would call some of the more specialty products,” she said.

Specialty products are based on region, and commonly include items such as tortillas in the southwest, bagels in the northeast, or biscuits in the south.

“Variety and regional favorites provide a wonderful opportunity to include creative grain-based foods at every eating occasion and at every life stage,” said Lee Sanders, senior vice president of government relations and public affairs, American Bakers Association (ABA).

Aside from grains, schools are particularly concerned about changes in the final sodium target, said Ms. Pratt-Heavner, which will be a big issue for bakers as well, since future lack of flexibilities will push schools into meeting target right away.

“A slow and steady approach over time means that consumers’ palates adjust to differences in taste and are more likely to be embraced,” Ms. Sanders said. “A longer phase in period over 4-5 years also allows for innovation technology to further evolve as well.”

This kind of ‘stealthy’ approach to transition may not be possible, however, as governmental changes take place.

Effective until June 30, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) put in place a nationwide waiver providing flexibilities for certain review requirements for child nutrition programs to prevent potential coronavirus (COVID-19) exposure while still allowing access to nutritious meals, applicable to the Summer Food Service Program and the National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option.

“These extensions are critical to ease the hurdles of school meal service throughout the pandemic to ensure that all hungry students can benefit and be nourished by the school meals program that include nutrient dense, whole grain-rich and enriched products,” said Ms. Sanders.

A bigger issue may be whether the USDA will make any further changes to the nutrition standards under a new administration.

“I think the most immediate impact on school nutrition standards is going to be the expiration of the flexibility for whole grain, sodium, and milk,” said Ms. Pratt-Heavner.

Before the Trump administration left office, it had issued a proposal to restore flexibilities, though the final rule had not been issued by the time the new office appointments had been implemented.

“When those waivers expire at the end of the pandemic and schools are required to go back to operating through the National School Lunch and Breakfast program, they will need to serve all whole grain-rich items, and that will be a change for many districts across the country because they have been utilizing either whole grain waivers or the flexibility provided by the Trump administration on whole grains,” said Ms. Pratt-Heavner. “So that’ll be a big issue in the baking industry.”

SNA is talking with Congress and USDA about the need to extend flexibility given the continuation of the pandemic, supply chain challenges and the fact that schools will not be operating under normal circumstances for a while, said Ms. Pratt Heavner.

“Even with the flexibility, the nutrition standards are in line with the dietary guidelines,” she said. “So it’s really going to hinge more on whether the new administration will allow for any additional flexibility once these pandemic waivers expire.”

Ms. Sanders said there will likely be interest by the Biden Administration in criteria for federal feeding programs such as SNAP, supplemental WIC program and school meal programs.

“The 2020 DGA’s by statute are the basis for any federal feeding programs,” she said. “These recommendations are grounded in strong evidence and science. With a focus on hunger policy and the potential of expanded programs, it is an opportunity for bakers to provide nutrient dense, innovative products to these feeding programs.”