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Schools get temporary reprieve on some lunch portions

A bit of good news for students who have bemoaned the strict new rules for school lunches: The federal agency overseeing the program has made temporary changes that allow students to eat more meat and grains for the rest of this school year.

The US Department of Agriculture, which oversees the school lunch program, announced in a letter to Congress on Dec. 7 that until the end of the academic year, schools no longer have to limit the meat, meat alternatives, or grains that they serve students.

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However, the overall calorie limits on school lunches — from 650 to 850 calories, depending on age — will not change, limiting how much more meat or grains that schools can actually serve.

Alden Cadwell, director of food services in the Brookline school system, said he will make small changes to school lunches in response to the change; the meatball subs served to students on Thursday, for instance, had an additional ounce of meat.

But unless the temporary USDA rules become permanent, Cadwell said, he doesn’t want to alter his menu significantly and then change it again next fall.

“If they’re just going to change back next year, we’re going to keep the status quo, because we’ve already ripped the Band-Aid off,” he said. “And people are starting to get used to the portion sizes.”

For instance, Cadwell said, he will not return to full-sized bagels, after shifting to smaller versions to meet the new standards this fall.

The temporary changes came after some members of Congress had complained to the USDA that the new regulations, which are designed to reduce childhood obesity and make school lunches healthier, were not providing enough food to students.

Schools must follow the new federal rules to receive USDA subsidies that help pay for their lunch programs. The regulations, which took effect this fall, also banned products with trans fats, reduced sodium levels, and required a daily serving of least three-quarters of a cup of vegetables.

A spokesman for the USDA declined to comment on the temporary changes. In his letter to Congress, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack  said the biggest difficulty schools have reported this year has been serving meals that include enough meat, meat alternatives, and grains to meet the minimum amounts required but that do not exceed the maximum amounts.

“This flexibility is being provided to allow more time for the development of products that fit within the new standards while granting schools additional weekly menu planning options to help ensure that children receive a wholesome, nutritious meal every day of the week,” Vilsack wrote.

If the temporary changes become permanent, Cadwell said, he would make more significant changes to his menus.

“It does seem like they’re listening,” he said. “There has to have been a huge uproar from some places.”

Kathleen Burge can be reached at kburge@globe.com.
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