All grain foods in school lunches must be “whole grain rich” by the start of the 2014-2015 school year, and at least half should be whole grain until then.

That’s what’s being proposed by the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in new National School Lunch Program rules published today in the Federal Register.

The proposed new rules, which also call for more low-fat dairy, fruits, vegetables, and less saturated fat and sodium, are based on recommendations made by the Institute of Medicine in October 2009 (finalized in early 2010), in a report titled School Meals: Building Blocks for Healthy Children.

As we waded through 195 pages from the Federal Register this morning (What! That’s not your idea of a good time?) we noted that the proposed rules define “whole grain rich” as “a minimum whole grain content of 51%” – a more simplified approach than that outlined in the IOM report.

We checked with FNS staffers to clarify this definition, and they confirmed that their definition of “whole grain rich” is that 51% of the grain must be whole grain (similar to previous USDA standards from the Food Safety Inspection Service) and not that 51% of the total weight must be whole grain (the standard of FDA’s whole grain health claim).

We’re relieved to hear that clarification, since we think this is a reasonable standard for kid-friendly foods, and one that’s in line with Whole Grains Council standards. In school food circles, a serving of grain is 14.75 grams of grain ingredients (don’t ask!) so 51% of 14.75g is 8g, the same minimum standard used on the Whole Grain Stamp.

The Whole Grains Council salutes USDA / FNS for finally moving forward with new regulations for schools. Our kids will think better, learn better, and behave better when they eat better, and we’re delighted to imagine the increase in whole grain consumption that these new school meal rules will bring about.

When will this happen? Today’s Federal Register publication marks the beginning of a 90-day public comment period, after which final rulemaking will take place. Since the document proposes a two-year period of “half or more whole grain rich” and then the start of “100% whole grain rich” with the 2014-2015 school year, it would seem that the rules are expected to go into effect in about August 2012.

In the meantime, we’re happy to know that thousands of dedicated school foodservice directors are going above and beyond the current rules – which simply “encourage” whole grains – and are already serving kids the whole grains they need. We hear scores of encouraging stories each year when we run our annual Whole Grains Challenge program, and it’s only going to get better when these new rules take effect. (Cindy)

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