School food services directors across Colorado and the country breathed a sigh of relief this week after United States Department of Agriculture rules limiting meat and grain portion sizes in school lunches were permanently relaxed last Friday. The rules had been temporarily eased in December 2012, but there was no guarantee of a long-term lift on the new requirements until federal officials completed the laborious rule-change process.

For students, the relaxed rules mean choices like larger burgers, bone-in chicken breasts, sandwiches or a second roll with meals. For food service staff, they mean fewer difficulties with food-ordering and meal-planning, and fewer complaints from high school students, particularly athletes, that lunches don’t fill them up.

While the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 ushered in a number of changes meant to make school lunches healthier, the new meat and grain requirements sparked the biggest backlash when they were implemented at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year.

“It was the single concern expressed from one end of the country to the other,” said Kevin Concannon, USDA Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services.

In addition to complaints from school districts in Colorado, Concannon said state “cattle interests were particularly concerned about the meat issue and the limitations.”

In December 2012, the USDA agreed to a temporary rule change that would allow larger portions of meat, pasta, bread and other grain items as long as the overall meal complied with calorie limits set for each age group. The vast majority of districts took advantage of temporary rule change, said Concannon. Not surprisingly, the response to the permanent rule relaxation has been enthusiastic.

“We know it was well received,” said Concannon. “People who work in the food service lines were the most outspoken in their appreciation.”