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Looser USDA School Lunch Standards Worry Some Maine Administrators

Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is relaxing Obama-era nutrition standards for school lunch programs.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is relaxing Obama-era nutrition standards for school lunch programs. The major change in the rule, announced Thursday, halves the amount of whole grains that students must be served.

At the moment, the majority of the grains in every noodle, bun and biscuit must be whole grain. The new rule says says that only half such products need to be "whole grain rich."  

"We haven't seen the final guidance on how they're going to measure that - if they're going to measure that 50 percent for the week, 50 percent for the day, 50 percent of the items? So kind of wait and see how that's going to come across," says Maine Department of Education Director of Child Nutrition, Walter Beasley.

Beasley says it's likely that most, if not all, Maine lunchrooms will change their menus to include more refined grains, such as white pasta and rice.

One food service director who is displeased with the change is Jane McLucas with Portland Public Schools. She says kids have been eating all whole grain products for the last five years and changing now would amount to a rollback in nutrition education.  

And she says it's just going to make it harder in the long run for lunchrooms that want to go all whole grain.

"I think that manufacturers are going to start backing off of the products they've been producing for us," McLucas says, "and five years down the road we're not going to be able to get the whole grain products anymore."

Another change is to the target sodium reduction levels set by the previous rules.

Many healthcare professionals are also viewing the rule change with dismay. Dr. Noah Nesin, Vice President of Medical Affairs with Penobscot Community Health Care, says it's a step in the wrong direction. 

"I don't know of anybody in health care or public health who would think that this is a good thing to do," says Nesin. "Either it's a cost-savings effort or it's returning a favor for some industry that does better without those restrictions in place, I would imagine."

Walter Beasley with DOE says the new rules ease the phased-in targets over the next seven years. The previous final target of 640 to 740 milligrams in school lunches by 2022 has been dropped in favor of a less stringent target of 935 to 1080 miligrams of sodium by 2025.

Also, flavored milk with higher fat content will be allowed.

The new rules take effect July 1, 2019.

Updated 3:16 p.m. Friday, December 7, 2018