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Less sugar, less salt: USDA proposes nutrition changes to school meals

The new standards for school breakfasts and lunches, including the first-ever limits on added sugar, would be implemented gradually.
Second-grade students select their meals at Yavapai Elementary School in Scottsdale, Ariz., on Dec. 12, 2022.
Second-grade students select their meals at Yavapai Elementary School in Scottsdale, Ariz., on Dec. 12, 2022. Alberto Mariani / AP

The Agriculture Department on Friday proposed new nutrition standards for school meals that would impose the first limit on added sugar in lunches and breakfasts served by school cafeterias.

The proposal also seeks to lower sodium levels and puts more of an emphasis on whole-grain products in school meals. It aims to improve the health of millions of students at a time when childhood obesity has risen dramatically, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimating that nearly 20% of children and adolescents have obesity.

The suggested nutrition changes, which would be implemented gradually over years, are part of a national strategy on hunger, nutrition and health announced by the Biden administration in September.

Once enacted, they would build on the USDA’s existing nutrition requirements for school meals, which a 2021 JAMA Network Open study found are often kids’ healthiest meals of the day.

“Our commitment to the school meal programs comes from a common goal we all share — keeping kids healthy and helping them reach their full potential,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement Friday. “Many children aren’t getting the nutrition they need, and diet-related diseases are on the rise.”

The proposal lays out a slow rollout for its nutrition tweaks. Starting in the fall of 2024, it calls for meals to offer products that are primarily whole-grain.

Then in the fall of 2025, it would implement limits on high-sugar products like yogurts and cereal, as well as chocolate milk or other flavored milk. It also reduces the weekly sodium limit for breakfast and lunch by 10%. Allowable sodium limits would continue to drop in the years that follow.

And in the fall of 2027, added sugars would be restricted to less than 10% of the total calories per week for breakfasts and lunches. 

The changes could have a wide-reaching effect, particularly for children who don’t otherwise have easy access to healthy food. 

In 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act overhauled school meal nutrition standards under the Obama administration. Afterward, research found that the risk of obesity declined each year among children living in poverty, showing a 47% reduction in obesity prevalence in 2018 compared to what would have been expected without the passage of the act. There was no significant association found between the legislation and childhood obesity trends overall. 

To make Friday’s proposed rules more effective, nutrition experts urged USDA to enforce them immediately. 

“This is definitely a step in the right direction,” said Megan Lott, a registered dietitian and the deputy director of the Healthy Eating Research program at Duke University. “We’d like to see the final rule go a little further.”

Lott was one of the lead authors of an assessment that examined what the health impact would be if school meal nutrition standards were aligned with the current dietary guidelines for Americans, which would require 100% of grain products to be whole grain and for fewer than 10% of calories to come from added sugar now as opposed to several years in the future. The assessment, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a health philanthropy, was released Friday.

“We found that these strong nutrition standards really benefit kids,” Lott said. “By serving healthier meals in schools, we have the opportunity to improve kids’ health and diet quality, reducing overweight and obesity rates, decreasing food insecurity, and there is evidence to show that kids perform better academically when the meals are healthier.”

A 60-day public comment period on the USDA’s new rules opens on Tuesday. Lott said her team’s health impact assessment was a “model policy” that she hoped would inform the USDA’s timing for implementing the policies. 

New requirements at a time of food supply disruptions

Others argued the proposal was too strict. 

At a time of labor shortages, rising costs and food supply disruptions, school nutrition programs “are simply not equipped to take on additional rules,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, a trade organization representing more than 50,000 school nutrition employees.

She said that the existing requirements for school meals have made them nutritionally balanced, including calorie limits that were implemented over a decade ago.

“Those calorie limits have effectively limited the amount of sugar in school meals,” she said. 

“To be able to meet new standards, schools need either consistent access to foods that meet those rules or they need enough staff, equipment and funding to be able to do more scratch preparation.”

Diane Pratt-Heavner of the School Nutrition Association

“To be able to meet new standards, schools need either consistent access to foods that meet those rules or they need enough staff, equipment and funding to be able to do more scratch preparation,” she added. “And all of those things are pain points for school meal programs right now.”

Vilsack said the extended timetable for the requirements should help with such challenges.

“We’re proposing these changes now to build in plenty of time for planning and collaboration with all of our school nutrition partners,” he said in his statement.

The Sugar Association, a trade organization, also took issue with the proposed rules, arguing that limiting sugar in foods such as cereal and yogurt will result in other deficiencies.

“These product limits not only ignore the many functional roles that sugar plays in food beyond sweetness but will also lead to reduced consumption of important nutrients,” the association’s president and CEO Courtney Gaine said in a statement. “It also encourages the use of sugar substitutes, which are not addressed in USDA’s proposed rule, and their health effects on children are not adequately studied.”

Lott said nutritious school meals were possible with less added sugar and would set up children for success in the future. 

“This is such an opportunity to set kids up with healthy habits early on that will continue into adulthood,” she said.