Schools won't have to cut the salt in meals just yet, and they can serve kids fewer whole grains, under changes to federal nutrition standards announced Monday.
The move by the Trump administration rolls back rules championed by former first lady Michelle Obama as part of her healthy eating initiative.
As his first major action in office, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said the department will delay the requirement on lowering the amount of sodium in meals, while continuing to allow waivers for regulations that all grains on the lunch line must be rich in whole grains. That means that they are more than half whole grain.
Schools could also serve 1 percent milk instead of the nonfat milk now required.
"If kids aren't eating the food, and it's ending up in the trash, they aren't getting any nutrition — thus undermining the intent of the program," said Perdue, who traveled to a school in Leesburg, Virginia, to make the announcement.
Leesburg mayor Kelly Burk and about 20 others protested outside the school ahead of the announcement.
"Some people don't like regulations, but these are important regulations that impact kids," Burk said.
Loudoun County parent Robin Scott also criticized the Trump administration's move.
"This 'flexible' term means we're lowering the standards and taking away the healthy lunch program that Michelle Obama started," she said.
Perdue, a former governor of Georgia, said some schools in the South have had problems with grits, because "the whole grain variety has little black flakes in it" and kids won't eat it.
"The school is compliant with the whole-grain requirements, but no one is eating the grits," Perdue said. "That doesn't make any sense."
Perdue said the department will work on long-term solutions to help schools that say the Obama administration standards are too restrictive. The changes reflect suggestions from the School Nutrition Association, which represents school nutrition directors and companies that sell food to schools.
The group often battled with the Obama administration, which phased in the healthier school meal rules starting in 2012. Obama pushed the changes as part of her "Let's Move" campaign to combat childhood obesity.
The Obama administration rules set fat, sugar and sodium limits on foods in the lunch line and beyond. Schools have long been required to follow government nutrition rules if they accept federal reimbursements for free and reduced-price meals for low-income students, but these standards were stricter.
The Trump administration changes leave most of the Obama administration rules in place, including rules that students must take fruits and vegetables on the lunch line. Some schools have asked for changes to that policy, saying students often throw them away.
As the healthier school meals have now been in place for five years, many schools have gotten used to them and children have developed more of a taste for the healthier foods. But schools have said some parts of the law are still causing them trouble, such as finding tasty foods that are high in whole grains. Some school nutrition directors have said they have a hard time finding whole grain pastas, biscuits and tortillas that kids will eat.
Health advocates who have championed the rules are concerned about the freeze in sodium levels, in particular. School lunches for elementary school students are now required to have less than 1,230 mg of sodium, a change put in place in 2014. The new rule would keep the meals at that level, delaying a requirement to lower sodium to 935 mg this year.
"By forgoing the next phase of sodium reduction, the Trump Administration will be locking in dangerously high sodium levels in school lunch," said Margo Wootan, a lobbyist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.