The USDA has announced new flexibility for school districts working to meet updated whole grain requirements for school meals. The move comes in response to feedback from schools that the whole grain rich products currently on the market did not hold together when produced in large quantities for school cafeterias.

Consequently, schools that demonstrate significant challenges in serving whole-grain rich pastas can now continue serving traditional enriched pasta products for up to two more years, while industry works to develop healthy pasta products that work for schools. However, districts that wish to take advantage of the two-year flexibility must obtain approval from their state agency by demonstrating that they experienced significant challenges in preparing and serving whole grain-rich pasta products in their schools.

"Schools raised legitimate concerns that acceptable whole-grain rich pasta products were not available," said USDA Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon in making the announcement. "We worked to find a solution which will allow more time for industry to develop products that will work for schools."

Beginning next school year, all grains and breads in school meal programs must be "whole grain-rich," meaning that they contain at least 50 percent whole grain meal and/or flour. These requirements also reflect the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommended making whole grains at least half of all grains consumed.

Many types of pasta, including those available through USDA Foods, meet the whole grain-rich criteria. However, during the current school year, USDA heard feedback from some schools suggesting that certain whole grain-rich pastas raised a challenge for school menus. Some of the available products, such as lasagna and elbow noodles, degraded easily during preparation and service and were difficult to use in larger-scale cooking operations.

The School Nutrition Association welcomed the announcement.

“SNA is pleased USDA is beginning to recognize the significant challenges school nutrition professionals face as they work to prepare meals that both meet the new nutrition standards and appeal to students,” SNA President Leah Schmidt, SNS, said. "School cafeteria staff are constantly encouraging students to try the healthy foods we prepare, including the wide variety of produce offered with every meal. However, strict whole grain standards coupled with the requirement that schools force students to take a fruit or vegetable is turning students away from healthy school meals, increasing the amount of food students throw away and overwhelming school foodservice budgets.

"Getting students to accept whole grain pasta is just one of many challenges school meal programs have faced under USDA regulations," Schmidt continued. "SNA hopes USDA will continue to work with school nutrition professionals to ensure schools have the flexibility needed to make nutrition standards succeed."