Flexibility in school meals was provided on November 29, 2017 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) .This interim final rule is modification to the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2011, and is a reflection of the USDA commitment to school meals announce by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue in May. The changes will be welcomed by those in the field that have struggled to find acceptable products. Other operators may not be affected by this rule, as they have already implemented the rule without the modifications. Whether you think that the changes are needed for progress or a roll-back to progress, here's what you need to know about the School Meal Flexibility Rule:

1. Schools have an option to serve low-fat (1 percent) flavored milk. This adds another milk choice to the menu, in addition to the non-fat flavored milk and low-fat and non-fat unflavored milk currently offered. The rule also would provide this milk flexibility to the Special Milk Program and Child and Adult Care Food Program operators serving children ages 6 and older;

2. Schools with meals that meet the current “Target 1” limit on sodium levels will be considered compliant with USDA’s sodium requirements for the 2018-19 school year. 

3. States will be allowed to grant exemptions to schools experiencing hardship in obtaining whole grain-rich products acceptable to students during School Year 2018-2019; and

4. This interim final rule will become effective July 1, 2018 for the 2018-2019 school year. 

USDA will accept public comments on these flexibilities via www.regulations.gov to inform the development of a final rule, which will address the availability of these three flexibilities in the long term. To be considered, written comments on this interim final rule must be received on or before January 29, 2018.

The timing of this final interim rule will allow for industry and school operators to develop and test new recipes and products in a timely manner. There is also time to ensure that upcoming bids and commodity purchases are meeting the new final interim rule. However, this rule is the "floor" or minimum standard to meet. Operations that have already found success with whole grains and reduced sodium, and prefer to stick with non-fat flavored milk can continue with their progress. Furthermore, districts that celebrate farm to school, fresh fruits and vegetables and innovative ethnic dishes with spices and whole grains may find they don't need to make any changes to their menus.

Picture Credit: www.schoolmealsthatrock.org