WASHINGTON — The US Department of Agriculture delivered a final rule regarding child nutrition meal pattern requirements, which will allow local operators of the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program to offer flavored, low-fat milk (1% fat) for students in grades K through 12, and for sale as a competitive beverage.

The ruling also finalized allowing flavored, low-fat milk in the Special Milk Program for Children and in the Child and Adult Care Food Program for participants ages 6 and older.

Michael Dykes, D.V.M., president and chief executive officer of the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), said the organization supported the flexibilities put in place by the Biden administration. Dykes said the USDA ruling cleared up “several years of confusion” and moved toward restoring more varieties of milk for school meals programs.

“The final rule allows schools to continue to serve milk that students prefer to drink while remaining consistent with the dietary guidelines,” Dykes said. “The rule gives clarity to school meals professionals and food makers as they plan ahead amid supply chain challenges, and it will improve students’ access to dairy products, particularly milk and its 13 essential nutrients, and cheese as a nutrient-rich protein alternate.”

The USDA’s final rule, which will become effective July 1, 2022, establishes transitional standards for the Child Nutrition Program requirements related to milk, whole grains and sodium. It is designed to support schools after more than two years of serving meals under pandemic conditions. The new meal requirements are to remain in place through the 2023-24 school year, and the USDA expects to have new standards for the 2024-25 school year and beyond.

“Today’s announcement helps to encourage school meal participation by maintaining a wider variety of milk offerings that kids enjoy,” Dykes said. “Milk is a major source of calcium, potassium, phosphorus, and vitamin D in the diets of children 2-18 years of age. In fact, about 73 percent of the calcium available in the food supply is provided by milk and milk products. Moreover, it has been proven time and again in schools across the country that when flavored milks are available, kids not only drink more milk—they are more likely to participate in the school meal programs and waste less food, thus truly benefiting from dairy’s important vitamins and nutrients.”

The rule from the USDA considered the importance of aligning school meal nutrition standards with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. Supporting schools in meeting higher standards also was a focus of the process, per the USDA.

Dykes said the ability for schools to supply children with a variety of dairy products was hampered “for years” by regulations.

“First, whole milk disappeared; then 2%; and then finally 1% flavored milk, which kids prefer compared to non-fat flavored milk,” Dykes said. “On top of that, schools have more recently had to plan for overly stringent sodium targets that would effectively remove cheese from the menu since sodium is necessary in cheesemaking.”

He added: “IDFA is grateful to USDA for providing needed certainty around school meal flexibilities in the near-term, and we look forward to working with the secretary and the department to ensure that nutrient-rich dairy products remain core long-term components of the child nutrition and school meals programs.”