Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told members of Congress in a December 7 letter that USDA will suspend daily and weekly limits of meats, meat alternatives,  and grains that were part of new school lunch rules.The new school lunch rules, which for the first time set calorie caps on meals served in public schools, were intended to address increasing childhood obesity level.

The new guidelines, which went into effect at the start of the 2012 school year, were part of the 2010 Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act, which had high profile backing from First Lady Michelle Obama.   The updated standards for the National School Lunch program set limits on calories and salt and phased in more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and low-fat options to school menus.  USDA also dictated how much of certain food groups could be served.

USDA’s action is in response to criticism of the new rules from students, parents, and lawmakers, saying that the new regulations left many children hungry;  the rules were too limiting as schools tried to plan daily meals; and that the rules were an overreach by the federal government.  USDA officials said they were loosening the regulations after some schools found it difficult to buy alternative portion sizes of such foods from suppliers and that some schools had inventory to use up that does not meet the new guidelines.  “School nutrition professionals have faced significant menu planning, operating, financial challenges, and more as a result of the new meal pattern requirements,” The School Nutrition Association said in a statement.

The adjustments announced by USDA are considered by many as minor as the overall calorie limits remain intact. Senator John Hoeven (R-ND) who has been pressing USDA to change the rules, along with Senator Mark Pryor (D-AR) called for more permanent action.  “It may be difficult for all students to get adequate protein to feel full through the school day,” Hoeven said in a statement.  “Protein is an important nutrient for growing children,” he said.

Cynthia Long, head of USDA’s child nutrition division, said that the agency would consider extending the change.