The Agriculture Department plans to do away with limits on the amount of meats and grains that students can have in their school lunches, following complaints from parents and lawmakers alike.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack informed members of Congress last week that the department would end its practice of limiting daily and weekly consumption levels for those foods. It comes after lawmakers argued that children simply weren’t getting enough to eat under the previous rules, according to Associated Press and other news reports. Dozens of school administrators had also complained that the regulations were hindering their school districts’ ability to plan nutritious 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 previous guidelines, which were mandated at the start of the school year in September, were intended to address the problem of increasing childhood obesity levels by setting limits on total calories per meal, amount of salt allowed and phasing in the inclusion of whole grain foods. The rules dictated how much of certain food groups could be served and schools were required to offer at least one vegetable or fruit per meal.

Nutritionists and various parents groups praised the new school lunch standards when they went into effect. Others, however, including many conservative lawmakers, labeled them as “government overreach.”

Like we haven’t heard that meme before. When government is funding a program, the officials responsible for its stated outcomes have the right—indeed, the duty—to put rules in place that can help assure accountability and compliance. Nothing wrong with that.

Since the school year began, though, USDA’s revised school lunch rules triggered a wave of news coverage, both in mainstream media and a viral YouTube parody video “We Are Hungry” ( made by some Kansas high-school students complaining they weren’t getting enough food at lunchtime. The video is actually quite humorous—if somewhat sophomoric (of course)—and features a kid wearing an “I (heart) BEEF” t-shirt who ends up stashing bags of snack foods in his locker, just to make it through the day.

Of course, what the kids were actually saying is not that they were starving, but that they weren’t getting enough of the foods they wanted to eat.

Tweaking the rules

Though the overall calorie limits remain in effect, USDA’s rules revision will allow school administrators and school lunch planners to authorize as many carbo-rich foods and as much meat as they want in their districts’ menus. In comments to USDA, many school officials said grains shouldn’t be limited because they’re a part of so many meals, and that it was difficult to ensure suitable portion sizing for meat-containing entrées.

The new tweak doesn’t upset nutritionists who lobbied for the school lunch overhaul.

Margo Wootan, a nutritionist with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told AP that the changes are “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.”

A little late for that aspiration, since Congress last year, after USDA first proposed the new guidelines, prohibited USDA from limiting servings of potatoes—especially french fries—and allowed school lunch programs to continue counting tomato paste on pizza as a serving of vegetables.

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.

Bottom line, USDA’s school lunch rules apply only to federally subsidized meals served to low-income children, and kids can—and do—buy additional foods in the lunchroom and elsewhere in most schools.

Flexibility is the operative word here. This issue isn’t about freedom or government control, as too many conservative policymakers reflexively insist. It’s about the long, slow, tortuous process of trying to reverse decades of indulgence at mealtime, generations of eroding the stay-at-home-and-make meals moms who cooked from scratch and a cultural milieu, for lack of a better word, relentlessly devoted to promoting snack foods, fast foods, junk foods—instant gratification in our dietary choices, as well as entertainment options.

It’s going to take many years and lots more struggle to undo all of that.

At least give USDA credit for trying to jump start the process.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.