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The USDA wants to limit added sugars and sodium in school meals

A teacher lines up the students for school-prepared lunches at Madison Crossing Elementary School in Canton, Miss. in 2019. The USDA unveiled new nutrition standards for school meals that would limit sugar and sodium.
Rogelio V. Solis
/
AP
A teacher lines up the students for school-prepared lunches at Madison Crossing Elementary School in Canton, Miss. in 2019. The USDA unveiled new nutrition standards for school meals that would limit sugar and sodium.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced on Friday new nutrition standards for school meals, keeping the focus on increasing nutritional value and decreasing diet-related diseases.

If implemented, the new standards would 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.

"We're proposing these changes now to build in plenty of time for planning and collaboration with all of our school nutrition partners," said Stacy Dean, deputy undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services in a statement. "Implementing the final school nutrition standards will require the support of schools and state agencies."

On the table for the new school meal standards are:

  • 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;
  • Encourage domestically produced foods
  • Nutrition advocates argue that school meals are often some of the healthiest that many students have access to because of the nutrition requirements behind every dish served — impacting not only health but educational outcomes as well.

    USDA last year released a report that showed added sugars in school meals far exceed the Dietary Guidelines for Americans standard that no more than 10% of calories from meals should come from added sugars. 92% of school breakfasts and 69% of school lunches were found to have exceeded the limit.

    The goal is to begin implementing the new standards as soon as 2025, but with a phased-in approach. By 2027, the Food and Nutrition Service aims for sugar to make up less than 10% of school meal calories and sodium to be reduced 30% by 2029.

    The new proposal is cited as being a part of the Biden administration's National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition and Health, which was released during the White House Conference in September.

    A new report released on Friday by Healthy Eating Research, a program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, finds 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.

    Some school advocates are pumping the brakes

    And the School Nutrition Association is calling on the department to go back to enforcing the current standards, instead of implementing new rules.

    Many of the current school meal standards, originally put in place during the Obama administration, were waived during the pandemic in order to give schools flexibility with what they could serve as they faced supply-chain crunches.

    "As schools nationwide contend with persistent supply chain, labor and financial challenges, school meal programs are struggling to successfully maintain current standards and need support, not additional, unrealistic requirements," SNA President Lori Adkins said in a statement, adding that their 2023 survey of school meal directors found 88% are still facing challenges finding whole-grain, low-sodium and low-fat options to meet the current standards.

    Current federal waivers given to schools that allow for continued pandemic-era serving flexibilities expire at the end of June.

    Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Ximena Bustillo
    Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.