Stricter school meal standards could require reformulation to lower sodium, fat and sugar

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty/Ariel Skelley
Source: Getty/Ariel Skelley

Related tags school meals Sodium reduction sugar reduction Milk Food for kids

Research shows school meals are the healthiest source of nutrition for most students in the US, but the US Department of Agriculture thinks they can be healthier, which is why it is proposing stricter standards that would reduce added sugars, fat and sodium, and increase intake of whole grains.

“Many children aren’t getting the nutrition they need, and diet-related diseases are on the rise,”​ including obesity, the rate of which more than tripled among children and adolescence since the 1970s and which disproportionately impacts Hispanic and Black children, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack told stakeholders gathered Friday at the agency’s Conversation on Health School Meals Roundtable.

“That is a heavy burden for those youngsters to carry, and it often results in low self-esteem and sometimes results in academic performance that is not up to the potential for those young people. And so, it’s important for us to understand the significance that these standards have on that very issue,”​ he added.

To “get this right,”​ and begin to transition from the leniency afforded schools during the pandemic to “resume compliance with the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act and the standards in the act,” ​Vislack said the agency solicited and listened to feedback from stakeholders, including more than 1,000 comments and through more than 50 listening sessions with parents, school nutrition professionals, public health and nutrition experts and the food industry.

Caps on added sugar target cereals, yogurts, flavored milk and grain-based desserts

Based on that feedback as well as the agency’s obligation to set science-based standards that align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, USDA is proposing, for the first time, caps on added sugar in school meals.

Beginning in the 2025-26 academic year, USDA proposes grain-based desserts, such as fruit turnovers and toaster pastries, be limited to no more than two ounce equivalents per week in school breakfasts, which is consistent with the current limit for school lunches.

Added sugar also would be limited in breakfast cereal to no more than 6 grams per dry ounce, in yogurt to no more than 12 grams per 6 ounces, in flavored milks to no more than 10 grams per 8 fluid ounces when served with lunch or breakfast or if sold outside the meal limiting added sugar to 15 grams per 12 fluid ounces.

These foods not only are the leading sources of added sugar in school meals, but “these are food items where we know there are a lot of choices with respect to the products and added sugar,”​ and so it should be relatively easy to source options from those currently available, explained Stacy Dean, deputy under secretary for USDA’s Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services.

According to USDA, school breakfasts currently include about 17% of calories from added sugar and school lunches have 11%. The current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting added sugars to less than 10% of calories daily.

USDA would limit added-sugars further in school year 2027-28 to include an average of less than 10% of calories per meal for both breakfast and lunch.

The standards do not limit the use of other sweeteners, including high-intensity options, commonly used to cut calories without cutting sweetness. 

Sodium targets steadily lower through 2029

USDA also proposes increasingly lowering sodium reduction targets through 2029,  beginning with a 10% year-over-year reduction of weekly sodium limits beginning in academic year 2025-26 through 2029-30.

In terms of milligrams, the caps range from equal to or less than 1,000 mg to 1,150 mg based on grade level beginning in July 2025 down to a range less than or equal to 810 mg to 935 mg in July 2029.

Sodium caps for breakfast would follow a similar approach with 10% year-over-year reductions beginning in 2025-26 through 2027-28 to bring the ranges based on grades to less than or equal to 435 mg to 520 mg as of July 2027.

“We are phasing that in in small increments, and why we are doing that is because the Food and Drug Administration guidelines are suggesting that’s the most appropriate way to embrace sodium reductions, and at the same time, continue to have acceptance,”​ Vilsack said.

USDA seeks guidance on milk standards

Flavored milk is a longstanding flash point in the school meal standards, and while currently allowed as a fat-free or low-fat option, USDA is considering phasing this out, but wants insight from stakeholders.

The proposed standard includes two options – the first would allow only high school children the option of flavored fat-free or low-fat milk, but elementary and middle school children would be limited to unflavored options. USDA is open, however, to allowing children in grades 6 through 8 to access flavored options.

The second option would maintain the current standard allowing all schools to offer fat-free and low-fat flavored and unflavored milk.

Whole milk is not addressed in the standards because it often is too expensive and can skew the overall calorie and fat content of meals, Vilsack said.

USDA holds whole grains steady

The proposed standards would maintain the current requirement that at least 80% of grains offered per week in school lunches and breakfasts be whole grain-rich based on ounce equivalents.

It is, however, requesting feedback on an option to require all grains be whole grain-rich, except one day a week schools may offer enriched grains.

A phased-in approach with financial aid available

Recognizing it takes time for schools to craft menus and source products that align with the standards and that food manufacturers may need time to reformulate products, USDA will phase in these changes, if finalized.

“We learned that we needed to have a degree of flexibility in the standards and we need to phase in some of the changes that are going to take place to give people the opportunity to do this right,​” Vilsack said.

As such, the proposed standards, if finalized, will being to be phased in during the 2024-2025 school year with full implementation by the 2029-2030 school year.

The agency also is making significant financial investments, including grants and incentives, to help schools meet the new requirements.  

School Nutrition Association pushes back against ‘unachievable’ goals

Despite the phased-in approach and promise of aid from USDA, the proposed standards are “unachievable for most schools nationwide,”​ and USDA should maintain existing standards, argues the non-profit School Nutrition Association.

“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.

The group noted that national labor and supply chain challenges continue to limit manufacturers’ and distributors’ capacity to produce and stock products that meet existing school nutrition standards, so that 88.8% of respondents to SNA’s 2023 School Nutrition Trends Survey said they were challenged to obtain sufficient menu items.

Vislack pushed back against the notion that the proposed guidelines are not feasible – stressing they are being phased in and noting at this point they are only proposed.

Stakeholders have 60 days to comment on the proposal, after which point Vislack says the agency intends to take feedback into account and continue working closely with different groups to finalize standards.

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