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USDA to dictate milk offerings from school vending machines

PD Editor Walt Cooley Published on 09 August 2013

Recently, a Wisconsin dairyman called me to discuss the comments he heard on a local radio show about new USDA rule changes that would affect the availability of milk in school.

He was concerned that these changes might perhaps discourage or prohibit milk consumption. He asked if I had any further information on the subject. I told him I’d look into it and get back to him.

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I spoke with Camellia Patey, a registered dietician and vice president of school wellness partnerships for the checkoff-funded National Dairy Council. She had just returned from the School Nutrition Association’s annual meeting and explained the impacts of the new rule.

The 200-plus-page “interim final rule” published by the USDA details new standards for “competitive foods” in schools. The issue has received general news coverage because some say the rules are a major expansion of the USDA’s authority to dictate food and beverage offerings in schools.

Previously, the USDA’s authority ended at the end of the school lunch line. The new rule extends that authority to all food and beverages sold on school campuses – anywhere and at any time during the regular school day.

The new rule affects those foods or beverages sold inside the school but outside the formal school lunch line, for example, items that might be offered through a vending machine or snack bar.

The rule requires that these foods and beverages conform with federal nutrition guidelines for any school accepting federal reimbursement to operate its school lunch program, which is most schools. It will take effect for the 2014-2015 school year.

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The main impacts of the rule for milk sold through these outside-of-the-lunch-line options limit the serving size of milk to an 8-oz. serving for elementary students and a 12-oz. serving for middle and high school students.

Low-fat and fat-free unflavored milk as well as fat-free flavored milk in the portion sizes indicated before are still acceptable.

Unfortunately, the rule did not limit diet soda and sports drink sales in high schools, although they will have to conform to the 8-oz. serving size and sugar content restrictions too.

Thus, chocolate milk as a “refuel beverage” will still be competing against these other offerings. The USDA says it will monitor the rule’s impact in high schools to “make sure milk consumption is not adversely affected” by the competition.

Patey said the recent good news from the conference she had just recently returned from attending is that the USDA has announced flexibility in the rules for meat options, including cheese as a “meat alternative.” This means that cheese will be back on hamburgers and other sandwiches more often.

As a parent who deliberately ate lunch with my second-grader several times last year, I can attest to the fact that current lunch offerings are bland. Hamburgers were a meat patty and a whole wheat bun. They “let” me put as much ketchup on it as I wanted.

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At my daughter’s end-of-school barbecue, I decided to bring my own McDonald’s Deluxe Quarter Pounder. Many of those elementary-age eyes were envious. One outspoken kid even said, “Awww, no fair.”

Sorry, kid, but your hamburger will still have less salt, fat and flavor than my cheeseburger. That soon-to-be-forthcoming slice of cheese might be your only consolation.

When I returned the Wisconsin dairyman’s call, he expressed concern that although the options for milk in school hadn’t changed, he was worried that those options still weren’t “competitive” enough.

He said low-fat (or 1 percent) and fat-free milk just don’t taste as “good” as fuller-fat milk offerings kids may have had before. It seems it’s the same when it comes to milk as it is hamburgers.

“If they’re not going to learn to drink milk in school, how will they ever keep drinking it later?” he asked. It’s a good question. One that continues to become more difficult to answer with each rule change.

If you feel school lunch is “watered down,” take consolation that free water will now also be offered with school lunch. It can come from the tap. But given milk’s continued struggles against bottled water, even that may not be a good thing.

I’m trying to think of it positively: Hopefully, 1 percent milk looks better when water is the only other option. But then, a cheeseburger always looks better than a hamburger to me, too.

Thanks for the call and heads-up, dairyman. We both share the same concerns. PD

00_walt_cooley

Walt Cooley
Editor
Progressive Dairyman
(208) 324-7513

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