Changes to School Lunch Program Present Opportunity for Rice

I'll trade ya
May 04, 2017
WASHINGTON, DC – This week, new Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue signed a proclamation to give America’s schools more flexibility to make food choices that are both healthful and appealing to students.  The rice industry, already a major player in school lunch nutrition programs, can benefit thanks to high nutritional and taste standards.

At the center of the policy shift for rice are new USDA exemptions, likely in the form of waivers to relax whole grain standards for schools struggling to serve 100 percent whole grains.  This opens the door for more white rice sales – still nutritious and cost effective but not a whole grain.  

“I believe some districts will go back to using more white rice, but we plan to continue using 100 percent brown rice,” said Emily Hartman, the child nutrition purchasing coordinator at East Baton Rouge Public Schools in Louisiana.  

“Whole grain brown rice has been a nutritional success and enjoys great acceptability in the K through 12 market,” said Gary Reifeiss of Producers Rice Mill, a supplier of parboiled brown rice to school foodservice programs around the country.  “Schools looking to maintain high nutritional standards that are having trouble with whole grain breads or pastas need look no further than U.S.-grown brown rice!”

Hartman shared her local brown rice success story – in an area where white rice has been king for generations.  “We have been serving only brown rice in our district for approximately five years, and our students have accepted it and seem to like it.  Just last week we conducted a student survey on jambalaya made with 100 percent brown rice and jambalaya made with half brown rice and half white rice.  Most of our students preferred the jambalaya made with 100 percent brown rice so we plan to continue to offer all brown rice.”

Food refusal, that leads to food waste, is a major problem for schools.  But as the rice industry continues to work with the school foodservice industry to perfect recipes and cooking techniques, the staple is seen as part of the solution, not the problem.

“The waivers most requested in Kansas from the past two school years have been for macaroni in Mac & Cheese,” explained Cheryl Johnson, director of child nutrition & wellness with the Kansas State Department of Education.  “Students in Kansas are accepting and eating brown rice from my observation and we have not had any requests for a waiver from any school district in Kansas to use white rice to date – they are serving brown rice with good acceptance by students.”  

Reifeiss believes continuing to work with the schools as they wade through shifting regulations and policies will be key.

“USA Rice has a great relationship with the School Nutrition Association to help these dedicated men and women, who are feeding our children every day, develop exciting, delicious, and healthy meals,” he said.  “Brown rice is surely not the only answer, but it is a great one because it satisfies kids and nutrition requirements.”

The School Nutrition Association welcomed the flexibility offered in the USDA announcement, saying in a press release, “while SNA supports preserving robust federal rules, the Association has continued to advocate for practical flexibility under federal nutrition standards to help ease menu planning challenges and appeal to diverse student tastes.”