* Schools say tough to buy different portion sizes
* Move follows complaints that rule left some students
* Change won't undermine overall healthier standards
By Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON, Dec 10 U.S. regulators are relaxing
school meal rules aimed at reining in calories and portion sizes
after some students, parents and lawmakers complained that new
stricter policies left many children hungry.
Under the adjustment, the U.S. Department of Agriculture
said it would suspend daily and weekly maximum amounts for
grains and meat or meat alternatives. That means school
districts this year can serve larger portions of those items
USDA officials said late Friday they were loosening the
regulations after some schools found it difficult to buy
alternative portion sizes of such foods from suppliers. Some
also said they had inventory to use up that does not meet the
"We understand that this is a year of transition," Cynthia
Long, head of USDA's Child Nutrition Division, wrote in a memo
on Friday to state and regional school food officials.
The School Nutrition Association, which represents school
food directors, said the change gives them more time to design
healthier menus that will suit students' tastes.
"School nutrition professionals have faced significant menu
planning, operating, financial challenges and more as a result
of the new meal pattern requirements," it said in a statement.
USDA's move follows complaints from some students that the
revised meals left them hungry.
Despite such complaints, most health experts continue to
back the overhaul, which was adopted in January as part of a
2010 law aimed at improving school breakfasts and lunches.
The modified meals, which aim to limit fat and salt as well
as curb portion sizes and boost fruits and vegetables servings,
took effect at the start of the 2012 school year in late
August and early September. Schools that adopt the changes get
more money back from the federal government, in part to offset
the higher prices of healthier foods.
For example, under the guidelines half of breads and other
grain-based foods offered must contain whole grains until the
start of the 2014 school year, when all such foods must be
Such changes take aim at rising U.S. childhood obesity and
were championed by First Lady Michelle Obama. More than
one-third of American youth are too heavy, statistics show.
Schools are a top focus because they provide meals to many
low-income students, who are often the most at-risk for being
overweight or obese. In 2011, more than 31 million children
received free or low-cost school lunches and more than 10
million received free or discounted breakfasts, according to
Margo Wootan, a nutrition policy expert at Center for
Science in the Public Interest, welcomed the change to give
struggling schools more options this year without having
Congress interfere with the fundamental law.
"Nutritionally, this change is minor and doesn't undermine
the overall nutrition standards," said Wootan, whose health
advocacy group backed the 2010 law.
Erik Olson, head of food programs at Pew Charitable Trusts'
health group, said calorie limits remain intact but schools will
"have much more flexibility about how they present meals that
kids will want to eat," calling it "a fairly modest
Democrats and Republicans in Congress praised the change,
saying parents and students in their states worried about strict
limits. Several lawmakers had called on the USDA last month to
reconsider, saying the guidelines did not account for various
student's height, weight, gender or physical activity levels.
Senator John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican who had
pressed USDA along with Democratic Senator Mark Pryor of
Arkansas, on Saturday called for more permanent action. USDA's
Long said the agency would consider extending the change.
"It may be difficult for all students to get adequate
protein to feel full throughout the school day," Hoeven said in
a statement. "Protein is an important nutrient for growing