Updated Saturday, December 8, 2012 at 07:01 PM
WASHINGTON — The Agriculture Department is responding to criticism over new school-lunch rules by allowing more grains and meat in children's meals.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told Congress in a letter Friday that the department will do away with daily and weekly limits on meats and grains. Several lawmakers wrote the department after the new rules went into effect in September, saying children aren't getting enough to eat.
School administrators also complained, saying set maximums on grains and meats are too limiting as they try to plan daily meals.
"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 said in a letter to Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.
The new guidelines were intended to address increasing childhood-obesity levels. They set limits on calories and salt, and phase in more whole grains. Schools must offer at least one vegetable or fruit per meal. The department also dictated how much of certain food groups could be served.
While nutritionists and some parents support the new school-lunch standards, others, including many conservative lawmakers, refer to them as government overreach. Yet many of those same lawmakers also have complained about hearing from constituents who say their kids are hungry at school.
Though broader calorie limits are in place, the rules' tweak will allow school-lunch planners to use as many grains and as much meat as they want. In comments to USDA, many had said grains shouldn't be limited because they are a part of so many meals, and that it was difficult to always find the right size of meat.
The new tweak doesn't upset nutritionists who fought for the school-lunch overhaul.
Margo Wootan, a nutrition lobbyist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says the change is minor and the new guidance shows that USDA will work with school-nutrition officials and others who have concerns.
"It takes time to work out the kinks," Wootan said. "This should show Congress that they don't need to interfere legislatively."
Congress has already interfered with the rules. Last year, after USDA first proposed the new guidelines, Congress prohibited USDA from limiting potatoes and French fries and allowed school lunchrooms to continue counting tomato paste on pizza as a vegetable.
The school-lunch rules apply to federally subsidized lunches served to low-income children.
Those meals have always been subject to nutritional guidelines because they are partially paid for by the federal government, but the new rules put broader restrictions on what could be served as childhood-obesity rates have skyrocketed.
Schoolkids can still buy additional foods in other parts of the lunchroom and the school. Congress two years ago directed USDA to regulate those foods as well, but the department has yet to issue such rules.
Hoeven, who had written Vilsack to express concern about the rules, said he will be supportive of the meals overhaul if the USDA continues to be flexible when problems arise. "This is an important step," he said.