Food fight: USDA strengthens school meal standards ahead of broad overhaul slated for the fall

By Elizabeth Crawford contact

- Last updated on GMT

Source: SDI Productions / Getty
Source: SDI Productions / Getty

Related tags: school lunch, Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, Food for kids, Usda

In unveiling stricter ‘transitional’ school nutrition standards for the upcoming academic year, the Department of Agriculture appears to have drawn a line in the sand for what could become a contentious debate between schools, industry and other stakeholders about what should be included in updated requirements slated for publication this fall.

The agency announced last Friday that it will reinstate school nutrition standards and longer-term goals established in 2012 during the Obama Administration, but which were rolled back during the Trump Administration or waived early in the pandemic when sourcing and delivering food was complicated by supply chain challenges, lockdowns and other safety measures.

While acknowledging the struggles many schools faced sourcing and delivering food early in the pandemic when many in-person classes were suspended and food manufacturers rationalized their SKU assortment so that it was more difficult to buy items that met the higher standards, USDA argued it is time to begin building back better from the pandemic.

As such, beginning in the next academic year, schools and child-care providers will be required to offer low-fat or non-fat unflavored milk alongside flavored low-fat milk, and at least 80% of the grains they offer in schools each week must be whole grain-rich, according to the rule published Feb. 7 in the Federal Register.

Sodium limits will remain the same next year, but there will be a 10% decrease in the amounts allowed at lunch in the following academic year of 2023-2024, according to USDA, which argues this aligns with the most recent FDA guidance on voluntary sodium reduction targets for processed, packaged and prepared foods.

USDA argues that taking a phased-in approach over the next two academic years will “help schools transition to a future that builds on the tremendous strides they’ve made improving school meal nutrition over the past decade.”

Schools and public health advocates fall on opposite sides of the line

But not everyone is convinced this is the best approach.

On one side of the line is the School Nutrition Association, which argues that “persistent supply chain problems have forced food companies and distributors to streamline offerings and reduce the geographic areas they serve, leaving many meal programs without access to foods that meet highly specialized school nutrition standards.”

Based on its 2021 Supply Chain Survey, SNA estimates 96% of respondents struggled to find sufficient menu items that met nutrition standards.

As such, it argues, Congress should extend pandemic-related child nutrition waivers and ease the rules on sodium, whole grains and milk to address challenges for menu planning, which is already underway, while also ensuring children continue to receive health school meals at no charge.  

On the other side of the line is the American Heart Association, which argues the transitional standards do not go far enough.

“This rule brings the meal standards closer to the strong, evidence-based standards that were adopted in 2012; however, closer will not ultimately be enough. These standards must be temporary and serve as a bridge to stronger nutrition standards based on the latest nutrition science,”​ AHA notes in a statement.

It urges USDA to move forward with the sodium targets in the 2012 rule and to develop a fourth sodium target that further lowers sodium consumption in young children.

In addition, it calls on the agency to limit the saturated fat, and added sugar in school meals and to require more diverse produce and whole grain offerings.

The Food and Drug Administration also lauded USDA’s sodium reduction targets, noting that they reinforce FDA’s own “signature efforts to improve our nation’s nutrition” by establishing voluntary sodium reduction targets in recently released guidance.

“Today’s action, coupled with FDA’s recent guidance, may further encourage industry to lower sodium levels in products found in schools, at home and beyond,”​ FDA says​, adding that it anticipates meaningful improvement in the health and wellbeing of the nation, including children, as a result.

Long-term nutrition standard updates on the horizon

While not in response to AHA, USDA emphasized that the final rule​ published Feb. 7 outlining the transitional standards is just that – transitional.

The phased-in changes only cover the next two academic years, as USDA plans to propose this fall longer-term changes that will align the school nutrition standards with the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

For this, USDA says it will “prioritize seeking input form schools, industry and others to inform the process,”​ however it is likely that the transitional rules published this month will set the tone for the pending update.

USDA says it intends to publish the final version of that rule​ in time for the 2024-2025 school year, which might be tight for some schools depending on the exact timing given how far in advance they place food orders and plan their menus.

13 recommendations for public health, industry and other stakeholders

Ahead of USDA’s update and as Congress prepares to consider the Child Nutrition Reauthorization, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Food and Nutrition Security Task force also recently released its second report​ focused on updates to the child nutrition program.

Building on temporary changes to children’s nutrition policy enacted in the past two years to provide relief during the pandemic, the recommendations include:

  • Universal free meals,
  • Strengthening school nutrition programs and nutrition education,
  • Investments in kitchen equipment and infrastructure,
  • Expanded access to out-of-school nutrition programs, and permanent access to summer EBT grocery benefits,
  • Improved nutrition and modernized service delivery within the Women, Infants and Children program,
  • Strengthening nutrition standards for all programs,
  • Simplifying program eligibility, enrollment and data sharing across programs, and
  • Increased access to affordable produce to encourage higher intake.

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