(TheBlaze/AP) -- The Agriculture Department is responding to criticism over new school lunch rules by allowing more grains and meat in kids' meals.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told members of Congress in a letter Friday that the department will do away with daily and weekly limits of meats and grains. Several lawmakers wrote the department after the new rules went into effect in September saying kids aren't getting enough to eat, despite the misleading "Hunger-Free Kids Act" title.
School administrators also complained, saying set maximums on grains and meats are too limiting as they try to plan 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 new guidelines were intended to address increasing childhood obesity levels. They set limits on calories and salt, and phase in more whole grains. Schools must offer at least one vegetable or fruit per meal. The department also dictated how much of certain food groups could be served.
While nutritionists and some parents have praised the new school lunch standards, others-- including many conservative lawmakers-- refer to them as government overreach.
Though broader calorie limits are still in place, the rules tweak will allow school lunch planners to make their own meals, and use as much grain or meat as they want.
The new tweak reportedly doesn't upset nutritionists who fought for the school lunch overhaul.
Margo Wootan, a nutrition lobbyist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says the change is 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."
But Congress has already interfered with the rules. Last year, after USDA first proposed the new guidelines, Congress prohibited USDA from limiting potatoes and French fries and allowed school lunchrooms to continue counting tomato paste on pizza as a vegetable.
The school lunch rules apply to federally subsidized lunches served to low-income children, and in recent years the number of such students has markedly increased. 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 skyrocket.
The government still allows schoolchildren to buy additional foods in other parts of the lunchroom and the school. Two years ago, Congress directed the USDA to regulate those foods as well, but the department has yet to implement them.
Sen. Hoeven, who had written Vilsack to express concern about the rules, said he will be supportive of the meals overhaul if the USDA continues to be flexible when problems arise.
"This is an important step," he said. "They are responding and that's what they need to do."
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