The USDA Thursday published an interim final rule providing tweaks to standards for meals under the agency’s National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs.

The rule, known as the School Meal Flexibility Rule, extends through the 2018-2019 school year three menu planning flexibilities currently available to many Child Nutrition Program operators. The flexibilities include providing operators the option to offer flavored, low-fat milk in the Child Nutrition Programs, extending the state agencies’ option to allow individual school food authorities to include grains that are not whole grain-rich in the weekly menu offered under the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program, and retaining Sodium Target 1 in the NSLP and SBP until 2020. No changes in the interim final rule will extend beyond the 2018-19 school year.

In terms of sodium, the rule gives schools more time to reduce sodium levels in school meals, allowing schools that meet the current Target 1 limit to be considered compliant for 2018-19 instead of being required to further restrict sodium levels. This is an effective delay in the sodium restrictions instituted in 2012 as a part of the Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs.

According to the USDA, the sodium delay is intended to provide school food authorities “more time to procure and introduce lower sodium food products, allow food industry more time for product development and reformulation, and give students more time to adjust to school meals with lower sodium content.” The added time for students to adjust is, in large part, meant to address growing food waste, as students have thrown away more food since the 2012 food standards took effect.

In its rule publication, USDA attributed the delay to the “several specific barriers to meeting the lower sodium targets” for food manufacturers, including a low level of demand for such products outside of the school audience, the cost and time involved in reformulating existing products and challenges with replacing sodium in some foods given its functionality of adding flavor or preserving food. “They have also indicated that a significant investment of time and resources is necessary to effect even marginal sodium reductions,” the publication said.

USDA also noted that the “sodium requirement will continue to be reevaluated for consistency with the Dietary Guidelines, which are updated every five years, and in response to Congressional action, as appropriate.”

The effective date of the interim final rule is July 1, 2018, with a 60-day comment period ending January 30, 2018.