It’s no secret that the food served in schools is often a major factor in the health of students. With that in mind, the USDA recently unveiled new nutrition standards for school meals, designed to limit sugar and sodium intake while increasing the amount of whole grains in meals eaten by more than 30 million students each day during the school year.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced on Friday the new nutrition standards for school meals, aiming to increase nutritional value and decrease diet-related diseases. The proposed changes include limiting added sugars in certain high-sugar products and, later, across the weekly menu; allowing flavored milk in certain circumstances and with reasonable limits on added sugars; incrementally reducing weekly sodium limits over many school years; emphasizing products that are primarily whole grain, with the option for occasional non-whole grain products; and encouraging domestically produced foods.
Nutrition advocates argue that school meals are some of the healthiest that many students have access to, and that the proposed changes could have a positive effect on student health and educational outcomes. A report released by Healthy Eating Research found that aligning the standards with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans would provide benefits such as increased student participation in the meal programs, reduced food insecurity, and improved academic outcomes.
The National Milk Producers Federation and the International Dairy Foods Association voiced support for the new proposed updates, particularly the plan to keep low-fat flavored milk in cafeterias. However, the School Nutrition Association is calling on the department to go back to enforcing the current standards, instead of implementing new rules.
The new standards are set to begin being implemented as soon as 2025, with sugar making up less than 10% of school meal calories and sodium reduced by 30% by 2029. With the current federal waivers given to schools that allow for continued pandemic-era serving flexibilities expiring at the end of June, it is yet to be seen how the new standards will be implemented.