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Thursday, April 18, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Under fire from some health groups, changes to school lunch policies get thumbs up from local school nutritionists

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue goes though the lunch line to have lunch with students at the Catoctin Elementary School in Leesburg, Va., Monday, May 1, 2017. Perdue unveiled a new rule on school lunches as the Trump administration and other Republicans press for flexibility after eight years of the Obamas’ emphasis on health eating. (Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue goes though the lunch line to have lunch with students at the Catoctin Elementary School in Leesburg, Va., Monday, May 1, 2017. Perdue unveiled a new rule on school lunches as the Trump administration and other Republicans press for flexibility after eight years of the Obamas’ emphasis on health eating. (Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

Local school nutritionists applauded changes made to school lunch nutrition policies this week. The changes, which maintain current rules about sodium levels, milk fat content and whole grains, were announced Monday by the Department of Agriculture.

“We’re not rolling back anything,” said Kim Elkins, nutrition director for the Mead School District. “It’s just keeping us at where we are currently, which is really good.”

Elkins, who also serves as State Public Policy and Legislation chairwoman for the Washington School Nutrition Association, said the newly announced changes preserve existing regulations. And while the USDA changes have been heralded by some as a “rollback” of Obama-era policies, Elkins disagrees.

“None of this is new, it’s just keeping it at what we currently do,” she said.

The rule changes, announced by newly appointed U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, allow states to continue to grant waivers to schools unable to meet whole grain-rich food requirements.

The USDA changes will also allow schools to serve 1 percent flavored milk. Previously, school lunch programs could only serve low-fat flavored milk.

Finally, the USDA changes pause the reduction of sodium from school lunches. Before the USDA rule change schools were expected to meet the “Sodium Target 2” by the fall. Under the current requirements, elementary age children are supposed to have 1,230 mg of sodium per day, middle school students 1,360 mg of sodium and 1,420 mg for high school students.

“Then, there is a second level that reduces sodium and it’s extremely strict,” Elkins said. “It’s closer to what people on special diets, like a cardiac restrictions, would need.”

Sodium Target 2 would have greatly reduced those levels, Elkins said, making it hard for schools to serve many things that contain naturally occurring sodium. Spokane-area schools are already meeting the Sodium Target 1 requirements.

“It’s more of common sense and keeping it at our current standard,” Elkins said of the USDA rule changes.

Doug Wordell, Spokane Public Schools director of nutrition services, agreed with Elkins.

“I do not think the recent USDA rule change is dramatic,” he said in an email.

He added, “The 1 percent milk option is new, however, we are not planning to use this option at this time.”

In a news release, Perdue said the changes are all “about local control” and are designed to “give schools and states the option of doing what we’re laying out here today. These are not mandates on schools.”

However, not everyone agrees the changes are beneficial. In a news release, the American Heart Association called the changes a “rollback masquerading as ‘flexibility.’ ” The change to the sodium requirements, as well as the flavored milk and whole grain changes, will hurt childrens’ health, according to the release.

The Alliance for a Healthier Generation also decried the changes in a news release.

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