USDA Creates a Process for States to Grant Exemptions to the Whole Grain Requirement
The USDA has released guidance to state nutrition agencies about how to handle granting exemptions to the Whole Grain Requirement, which has had a significant impact on cafeteria operations throughout the state and country. The USDA was compelled to set up this waiver process as part of the Omnibus bill (Public Law 113-235).
With this guidance, the New Jersey Department of Agriculture can now offer exemptions to New Jersey school districts which can demonstrate that a hardship was created by the new Whole Grain Requirement. If the waiver is granted, it would allow a school to return to the pre-2014-2015 standards for meals, which required that at least 50% of the grains offered in the program are whole grain rich. For a school district to be eligible, they have to be able to prove they experienced a hardship. This can include: financial hardship, difficulty in securing products, poor student acceptability, etc. The waiver, if granted, would apply to reimbursable meals only.
We ask the state to move on this quickly and to develop an efficient process, as school cafeterias need to rebuild their participation.
The USDA’s guidance does not allow the states to grant waivers for the whole grain requirement with regard to a la carte sales. This can include meal entrees that are sold a la carte, as well as bagels, pretzels, cookies, etc.
The directive from Congress to the USDA, it asks them to restore the standards to the pre-2014-2015 level. This would indicate that schools should be able to restore some of the popular a la carte items that were available in the previous school year. It is disappointing that the USDA did not follow the directive of Congress.
The economics of a school cafeteria rely heavily on the high profit margin generated by the a la carte sales so that the wholesome meal can be presented to students at a tremendous value. The USDA should offer expanded guidance, allowing for this exemption. School districts can continue to vigorously promote a nutritious selection of foods and promote a healthy lifestyle, while being responsive to taste preferences of students. Each school district can develop a wellness policy that best meets the needs of their community. The decision-making for the students in our districts should be left to the local community officials.