The U.S. Department of Agriculture has finalized regulations governing school meal programs that will allow fat-free flavored milk but will eliminate low-fat flavored milk as an option in reimbursable meals. The rule was published today in the Federal Register, and First Lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the new standards during a visit this morning to an elementary school in Alexandria, Va.
The new rule, which will go into effect for the 2012-2013 school year, does not include any other direct limitations to dairy products. In fact, it highlighted yogurt and cheese as meat alternates for meals and identified lower-fat and lower-sodium cheeses available to schools.
The USDA action will put in place the provisions of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which Congress passed in late 2010. The act aims to improve the quality of all foods and beverages offered in schools and to align school menus with the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans. It requires schools to offer eight ounces of fluid milk with each school lunch and breakfast, but only low-fat and fat-free plain milk and fat-free flavored milks are allowed.
The act also established a new requirement for USDA to enact nutrition standards for foods and beverages offered for sale in the a la carte line in school cafeterias and in vending machines. To date, USDA has not issued rules governing these "competitive foods," so milk will continue to face tough competition from other a la carte beverages sold at schools until USDA completes the rulemaking process.
"We are disappointed that USDA has placed limits on milk varieties ahead of constraints on competing beverages widely available today," said Connie Tipton, IDFA president and CEO. "Eliminating low-fat flavored milks, which kids like, and still allowing a wide variety of a la carte beverages like juice beverages, sports drinks and soda at schools will reduce milk consumption."
Tipton noted that milk consumption in schools has declined among children and teens, and research shows that much of this decline is attributed to the wide availability of other beverages at schools. Research shows that when beverages other than milk, 100-percent juice and water are offered, total milk consumption at school drops 9 percent to 28 percent.
"One bright spot is that schools may continue to offer all milk varieties, including low-fat flavored milk, for a la carte and vending machine purchases, which fall outside of the reimbursable school meal," Tipton said. "Hopefully this action will help to lessen the decline in milk consumption and provide more children with the nutrients they need."
Also, the rule allows for five-day averaging for calorie caps, saturated fat and sodium, so schools will retain flexibility for incorporating cheese, pizza and other foods containing dairy into weekly meal plans.
IDFA, Legislators Caution Against Eliminating Low-Fat Flavored Milk
On January 6, leaders of the Milk Industry Foundation sent a letter to Vilsack to highlight the continuing decline in milk consumption at schools and the corresponding rise of competing beverages available on school grounds. They expressed concern that schools might use USDA's final school meal rule as their basis for all school milk purchases.
"Our industry would prefer an attainable restriction on added sugars or a calorie limit rather than the exclusion of low-fat flavored milk as proposed in the school meal rule," the MIF letter said.
Congressman Joe Courtney (D-CT) and Congressman Glenn Thompson (R-PA), members of the House Education and Workforce Committee that oversees the school meal program, also wrote to the secretary asking for consistent standards for milk and all beverages sold in schools. (link to letter).
"Given the nutritional value of milk, including low-fat flavored milk, we are deeply concerned that USDA would take action that could drastically reduce milk consumption in schools in favor of less healthy alternatives," the legislators said.
IDFA expects USDA to propose rules governing competitive foods and beverages sold in a la carte lines and vending machines early this year, with implementation likely in the 2013-2014 school year. IDFA agrees with recommendations from the Institute of Medicine and other scientific bodies that say schools should offer low-fat and fat-free milk varieties to help kids meet the recommended federal guidelines for milk consumption.
IOM recommendations also would allow both low-fat and fat-free flavored milk as an a la carte beverage but limit the amount of sugar to 22 grams per eight-ounce serving. It is unclear whether USDA will incorporate this recommendation.
IDFA will continue to advocate for consistent standards for milk and all other beverages sold in schools.
For more information, contact Ruth Saunders, IDFA vice president of legislative and economic policy, at email@example.com, or Michelle Matto, IDFA consultant on nutrition and labeling, at firstname.lastname@example.org.