Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the new standards (which form part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act: strongly backed by the First Lady) on Saturday, during a visit to an elementary school in Virginia.
The USDA's new rule – now published in the Federal Register – will enter into effect from the 2012-2013 school year, but will still allow fat-free flavoured milk to be offered to children.
It does not include any other limitations on dairy products, highlights yogurt and cheese as meat alternatives for meals, and identifies lower fat and lower sodium cheeses available to schools.
Improving food quality
Passed by Congress in late 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act aims to improve food and beverage quality in schools, by aligning school menus with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
It is intended to help 115,000 children gain access to school meal programmes, and improve the quality of meals by reimbursing schools an extra six cents per lunch to help them provide healthier options.
The act also requires schools to offer 8oz of fluid milk with each school lunch and breakfast, but only low-fat and fat-free plain milk, and fat-free flavoured milks are allowed.
But International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) president and CEO, Connie Tipton, said the organisation was disappointed by the USDA’s decision on low-fat flavoured milks.
"Eliminating low-fat flavored milks, which kids like, and still allowing a wide variety of a la carte beverages like juice beverages, sports drinks and soda at schools will reduce milk consumption."
Milk consumption slump
US school milk consumption had fallen amongst teenagers and children due to the widespread availability of other beverages in schools, Tipton said, citing unnamed research that she said showed that when drinks other than milk, 100% juice and water were offered, total milk consumption at schools fell from nine to 28%.
She added: "One bright spot is that schools may continue to offer all milk varieties, including low-fat flavored milk, for à la carte and vending machine purchases, which fall outside of the reimbursable school meal," Tipton said. "Hopefully this action will help to lessen the decline in milk consumption and provide more children with the nutrients they need."
On January 6, the Milk Industry Foundation wrote to Vilsack expressing its concern about the exclusion of low-fat flavoured milk, as did Congressmen Joe Courtney and Glenn Thompson.
"Given the nutritional value of milk, including low-fat flavored milk, we are deeply concerned that USDA would take action that could drastically reduce milk consumption in schools in favor of less healthy alternatives," the politicians wrote.