U.S. regulators are relaxing school meal rules aimed at reining in calories and portion sizes after some students, parents and lawmakers complained that new stricter policies left many children hungry.
Under the adjustment, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it would suspend daily and weekly maximum amounts for grains and meat or meat alternatives. That means school districts this year can serve larger portions of those items without penalty.
USDA officials said late Friday they were loosening the regulations after some schools found it difficult to buy alternative portion sizes of such foods from suppliers. Some also said they had inventory to use up that does not meet the new guidelines.
"We understand that this is a year of transition," Cynthia Long, head of USDA's Child Nutrition Division, wrote in a memo on Friday to state and regional school food officials.
The School Nutrition Association, which represents school food directors, said the change gives them more time to design healthier menus that will suit students' tastes.
"School nutrition professionals have faced significant menu planning, operating, financial challenges and more as a result of the new meal pattern requirements," it said in a statement.
USDA's move follows complaints from some students that the revised meals left them hungry.
Despite such complaints, most health experts continue to back the overhaul, which was adopted in January as part of a 2010 law aimed at improving school breakfasts and lunches.
The modified meals, which aim to limit fat and salt as well as curb portion sizes and boost fruits and vegetables servings, took effect at the start of the 2012 school year in late August and early September. Schools that adopt the changes get more money back from the federal government, in part to offset the higher prices of healthier foods.
For example, under the guidelines half of breads and other grain-based foods offered must contain whole grains until the start of the 2014 school year, when all such foods must be whole-grain.
Such changes take aim at rising U.S. childhood obesity and were championed by First Lady Michelle Obama. More than one-third of American youth are too heavy, statistics show.
Schools are a top focus because they provide meals to many low-income students, who are often the most at-risk for being overweight or obese. In 2011, more than 31 million children received free or low-cost school lunches and more than 10 million received free or discounted breakfasts, according to USDA.