USDA’s Proposed Long-Term Nutrition Standards for Schools, at a Glance
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In early February, the USDA released a series of proposed changes to the long-term school nutrition standards. A total of thirteen widely-ranging topics were addressed, with at least four of these proposals significantly impacting the day-to-day operations of most, if not all, school nutrition programs.
There is no current standard for added sugars in school meals. The proposed changes would place product-based limits for grain-based desserts, breakfast cereals, yogurts, and flavored milks, effective SY 2025-26. For example, breakfast cereals would be limited to no more than six grams per dry ounce, and yogurts would be limited to no more than 12 grams per six ounces. Additionally, effective SY 2027-28, weekly added sugar limits would have to average less than 10% of calories per meal.
Currently, fat-free flavored and low-fat and fat-free unflavored milks are allowable. Additionally, unflavored milk is required to be offered at each meal service. Proposed changes include two options:
- Option 1: to allow only unflavored milk for grades K-8, and both flavored and unflavored for grades 9-12 OR to allow only unflavored milk for grades K-5, and both flavored and unflavored for grades 6-12, with either proposed change becoming effective SY 2025-26. This restriction would be concurrent with the proposed weekly added sugar limits to average less than 10% of calories per meal.
- Option 2: to continue to allow flavored and unflavored milks for all grades K-12, although still enforcing weekly added sugar limits to average less than 10% of calories per meal.
The current guideline requires at least 80% of weekly grains offered to be whole grain-rich, with all remaining grains to be enriched. Proposed changes again include two options:
- Option 1: require all grains to meet the whole grain-rich requirement, except enriched grains may be offered one day each school week.
- Option 2: continue with the current standard.
As currently defined, sodium restrictions for school breakfast as of July 1, 2022, are < 540 mg, < 600 mg, and < 640 mg for grades K-5, 6-8, and 9-12, respectively. Newly proposed standards would include two reductions of 10% each in SY 2025-26 and 2027-28.
As of July 1, 2022, school lunch sodium limits are < 1,230 mg, < 1,360 mg, and < 1,420 mg for grades K-5, 6-8, and 9-12, respectively. There is already a planned reduction for July 1, 2023, of < 1,110 mg, < 1,225 mg, and < 1,280 mg within the same grade categories. Initially using the SY 2023-24 limits, the USDA proposes to enact three further 10% reductions in SY 2025-26, 2027-28, and 2029-2030, resulting in a final guideline of < 810 mg for grades K-5, < 895 mg for grades 6-8, and < 935 for grades 9-12.
Additional Proposed Changes
In addition to the above-listed nutritional changes, several amendments are being suggested, including:
- Professional standards.
- Menu planning options for American Indian and Alaska Native students.
- Traditional foods.
- NSLP afterschool snacks.
- Substituting vegetables for fruits at breakfast.
- Nuts and seeds.
- Competitive foods (Smart Snacks) – hummus exception.
- Buy American.
- Geographic preference expansion.
More details are available in the USDA’s press release, as well as a side-by-side comparison chart of current standards versus the newly proposed standards.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack enunciated the administration’s standpoint on continual improvement of school nutrition standards. “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,” said Vilsack. “Many children aren’t getting the nutrition they need, and diet-related diseases are on the rise. Research shows school meals are the healthiest meals in a day for most kids, proving that they are an important tool for giving kids access to the nutrition they need for a bright future. We must all step up to support child health if we are to achieve the Biden-Harris Administration’s goal of ending hunger and reducing diet-related diseases by 2030, in accordance with the National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition and Health. Strengthening school meals is one of the best ways we can achieve that goal.”
The USDA did express apparent gratitude for the efforts made in recent years by school nutrition professionals nationwide. “When millions of kids across the nation needed a place to turn for food during the pandemic, school food service professionals answered the call in a heroic way,” said Cindy Long, FNS Administrator. “Their tireless work hasn’t stopped, as they’re continuing to serve high quality meals, even while enduring supply chain disruptions and high food costs. We recognize these challenges and are steadfast in helping our partners serve the most nutritious meals, while allowing time for gradual improvements that will make these gains achievable and sustainable.”
Even with the praise provided by the USDA for school nutrition professionals, the School Nutrition Association (SNA) was quick to speak out against the proposed changes. “Research shows students receive their healthiest meals at school, thanks to current nutrition standards,” said SNA President Lori Adkins, MS, SNS, CHE. “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.”
A 60-day comment process was initiated on February 7th and will close on April 10th. Comment submissions can be made here, or in writing to School Meals Policy Division, Food and Nutrition Service, P.O. Box 9233, Reston, Virginia, 20195.
i3 Education will continue to provide updates on the proposed rule, and encourage you to follow this evolving story and many others with us on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.