The USDA has announced a set of more stringent nutrition standards for school meals, to be rolled out gradually over the next few years, with the goals being to limit added sugars, including in flavored milks, further bring down sodium levels and emphasize products that are primarily whole grain. The department says the proposed updates reflect the most recent Dietary Guidelines, as required by law, and “build in plenty of time for planning and implementation to ensure the school meals community and the kids they serve have the best chance for long-term success.”
Specifically, it addresses four areas: added sugars, milk, sodium and whole grains
To limit added sugars in a practical way, USDA is proposing a phased approach, beginning with limiting added sugars in certain products beginning in fall 2025, targeting the most common sources of added sugars in school meals: breakfast cereals, flavored milks, grain-based desserts and yogurt. Then, in fall 2027, the rule proposes limiting overall added sugars across the weekly menu to less than 10% of calories per meal, on average, to better align meals with the dietary guidelines.
The proposed rule continues to encourage consumption of fat-free or low-fat milk, while allowing some flavored milk to be offered in school meals. One option proposed would limit flavored milk to children in grades 9-12 while a second option would allow flavored milk for children in all grades (K-12). Both options include a proposed added sugars limit for flavored milk.
In regard to sodium, the rule proposes a multi-year approach including two sodium reductions for breakfast (10% each in fall 2025 and fall 2027) and three for lunch (10% each in fall 2025, fall 2027, and fall 2029). USDA says this “gives school nutrition professionals ample time to implement the changes, the food industry time to develop new or improved products, and students time for their palates to adjust.” It adds that the reductions also align with FDA’s recommended sodium reduction goals for industry, which USDA expects would help make reducing sodium more feasible for schools as more low-sodium products become available.
In the area of whole grains, USDA proposes two options and requests public feedback on which will work best for students, schools, and partners. One would maintain the current requirement under the transitional standards rule, which requires 80% of all grains offered in a school week (based on ounce equivalents) to be whole grain-rich (defined as containing at least 50% whole grains). An alternative option would allow schools to serve non-whole, enriched grain foods like refined, enriched pasta or flour tortillas one day per school week.
USDA is welcoming feedback on the proposed standards, which it will use to inform the final standards. Comments can be submitted between Feb. 7, and Apr. 10, 2023. For more info, go here.