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U.S. permanently relaxes rules aimed at healthier school meals

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. regulators said on Thursday they were permanently relaxing school meal rules that were designed to combat childhood obesity by reining in calories and portion sizes but aroused complaints the policies caused students to go hungry.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture had initially loosened the rules in late 2012, suspending daily and weekly maximum amounts for grains and meat or meal alternatives. That allowed school districts to service larger portions without penalty.

"Earlier this school year, USDA made a commitment to school nutrition professionals that we would make the meat and grain flexibility permanent and provide needed stability for long-term planning. We have delivered on that promise," Kevin Concannon, USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, said in a statement.

The announcement was welcomed by North Dakota Republican Senator John Hoeven, who had introduced a bill with Arkansas Democratic Senator Mark Pryor to make the changes permanent.

"Today, the USDA made the permanent changes we have been seeking to the School Lunch Program," Hoeven said in a statement. "A one-size-fits-all approach to school lunch left students hungry and school districts frustrated with the additional expense, paperwork and nutritional research necessary to meet federal requirements. These are exactly the changes included in our Sensible School Lunch Act."

The rules had initially been adopted in 2012 as part of a law designed to improve school breakfasts and lunches. The modifications were aimed at limiting fat and salt, reducing portion sizes and increasing fruit and vegetable servings. Some 31 million children in the United States receive free or low-cost school lunches and more than 10 million get free or discounted breakfasts.

Schools are an important focus because they provide meals to many low-income students, considered to be often the most at risk for being overweight or obese.

(Reporting by Peter Cooney and Ros Krasny; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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