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The USDA is proposing stronger nutrition standards for school meals to give kids the right balance of nutrients for healthy and appealing meals.
The new plan for stronger nutrition standards for school meals includes incrementally reducing sodium, a limit on added sugars (for the first time), and emphasizing whole grain products, while continuing to serve fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
USDA wants your feedback on its proposed changes.
May 2023 Update: 438 Salud America! members submitted a model comment and were among over 74,000 people overall to comment on USDA’s proposed school meal nutrition changes. The model comment was created by Salud America! at UT Health San Antonio in partnership with UnidosUS!
After a one-month time extension, the USDA closed the public comment period on May 10, 2023.
For the health of Latino and all children, I support the proposed strengthening of the school nutrition standards to support the growth, health, and well-being of children. The USDA’s plan to limit added sugars, reduce weekly sodium limits, and emphasize whole-grain foods would benefit all students and further reduce diet-related diseases, which disproportionately harm communities of color.
Nearly 1 in 5 Latinos do not have access to enough healthy food (https://salud.to/nutritionsec). Latinos and other minorities face both food and nutrition insecurity (https://salud.to/USindex). Children consume many added sugars, which have no nutritional value and can lead to weight gain. They do not consume enough whole grains, which have valuable nutrients and dietary fiber. And children consume too much sodium, which can heighten their risk for high blood pressure and other health conditions. Latino children have higher rates of obesity (20.7%) than their white peers (11.7%) (https://salud.to/eliminate).
Strong school meal nutrition standards are also an important tool in addressing health disparities among communities of color, as Latino and Black students participate in school meal programs at higher rates than White children. Thus, serving foods that are richer in whole grains and lower in sugar and sodium has the potential to improve health equity and the well-being of children across the United States who depend on healthy school meals. I urge you to adopt strong school meal nutrition standards.
What Are USDA’s Proposed Changes to School Food Rules?
By law, USDA sets standards for foods and drinks served through the school meal programs, including nutrition standards that align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
USDA has aimed to improve nutrition standards for school meals for years.
Many people agree. Over 7,000 people spoke up in 2021 for improved school meal nutrition. In 2020 and 2018, thousands of people voiced their opinions on the Trump Administration’s efforts to weaken school meal standards.
The past two years, USDA loosened standards during the COVID-19 pandemic to give schools more flexibility in serving school meals in a time of heightened nutrition and food insecurity.
Now the new USDA proposal calls for stronger nutrition rules:
- Added Sugars: Limit added sugars, first with product-based limits for specific high-sugar items and later, with overall weekly limits.
- Milk: Allow some fat-free/low-fat flavored milk to be served in school meals, with reasonable limits for added sugars. USDA is seeking feedback on two options: limiting flavored milk to grades 9-12 or allowing it for all grades.
- Whole Grains: Require products that are primarily whole grain (at least 50% whole grains) with the option to occasionally offer non-whole, enriched grain products. USDA is seeking feedback on two options: requiring 80% of grains per week to be whole grain or allowing non-whole, enriched grain products (like white flour tortillas) one day per week.
- Sodium: Gradually lower the weekly sodium limit over several school years. This includes two reductions for school breakfast (10% each in fall 2025 and fall 2027) and three reductions for school lunch (10% each in fall 2025, fall 2027, and fall 2029).
Other changes being proposed by the USDA are:
- Supporting schools serving primarily American Indian and Alaska Native children in offering more culturally appropriate foods.
- Setting a limit (5% of total food costs) on food purchases from outside of the U.S.
- Allowing schools to limit food contract bids to products that are locally grown, raised, or caught.
“With today’s announcement, [Food and Nutrition Service] is proposing updated, science-based standards developed from the latest edition of the dietary guidelines and informed by public comments on the transitional standards, as well as over 50 listening sessions the agency held with parents, school nutrition professionals, public health and nutrition experts, partners from tribal nations, and the food industry,” according to the USDA.
Why Are Nutrition Standards Being Updated?
The most recent edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans found that that most children are consuming too much sugar, sodium, and saturated fat, and not enough fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
With this in mind, the USDA’s goal is to provide the right balance of nutrients for healthy and good-tasting meals for children with the proposed changes for nutrition standards.
“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,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
The proposed changes also align with the 2022 National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health and President Joe Biden’s White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health.
USDA is encouraging the public to comment on its proposed school meal options.
Public input is critical because it gives federal officials information about the potential impact of a proposed regulation, according to Unidos US. Participating in the rulemaking process allows you or your organization to shape federal programs and the rules that govern.
“USDA will continue to do all we can to support our partners’ success, because nothing could be more important than giving kids the best chance at a healthy future,” said Stacy Dean, deputy undersecretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services. “However, we cannot do this alone. Implementing the final school nutrition standards will require the support of schools and state agencies.”
Why Are School Meals Important for Children, Especially Latinos?
Kids consume a significant portion of their daily calories at school.
That makes school meals critical to their growth and development. Poor nutrition can impact a child’s classroom performance and affect their health for a lifetime.
Unfortunately, Latino kids have more access than their peers to unhealthy foods and drinks in and around schools, according to a recent research review by Salud America!
That same review also found schools with more Latino students tend to have weaker policies for school snacks and drinks. These schools are less likely to implement nutritional guidelines.
“School policy and decision makers should prioritize helping schools in Latino communities effectively implement federal nutrition standards,” according to the review. “Schools should also consider nutritional education that covers schools and the surrounding food environment.”
Next Steps for the School Meal Nutrition Revisions
Following the public feedback regarding the changes, the USDA will take the comments into consideration to further develop the final standards, aiming to publish in time for schools to plan for the 2024-2025 school year.
“USDA is proposing that the first changes would take effect in fall 2024, and final updates would be complete by fall 2029,” according to the USDA.
The complete proposed implementation timeline can be found here.
“USDA understands that thoughtful implementation of the updates will take time and teamwork,” Dean said. “We’re proposing these changes now to build in plenty of time for planning and collaboration with all of our school nutrition partners.
Salud America! and Unidos US, along with other organizations like Voices for Healthy Kids, have created model comments for people to submit to USDA on school meals.
Many health groups support the USDA proposal.
“The new standards will be critical to the health and learning of the nearly 30 million children who eat school lunches and 14 million who eat school breakfasts on an average school day,” said Luis Guardia, President, Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), in a statement. “These meals fuel children’s health and learning by reducing hunger, decreasing childhood obesity, improving child nutrition, and enhancing child development and school readiness.”