The Agriculture Department is proposing to restrict the sugar content of school meals, while tightening sodium limits, increasing whole grains requirements and possibly letting schools continue serving low-fat flavored milk. 

The proposal unveiled Friday by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack would limit added sugars to no more than 10% of calories per week on average, require at least 80% of the weekly grains to be whole grain-rich, and incrementally lower sodium levels over the next several years. For flavored milk there would be limits on the amount of added sugar. 

During a live USDA virtual roundtable, Vilsack said the standards would be phased in to give schools time to adjust to them. 

“We looked at the dietary guidelines and tried to formulate a set of rules with flexibilities and transitions that respond to the need for us to continue to improve the nutrition of the meals being served but at the same time providing some time and adjustment periods for these rules to take effect,” Vilsack said during a follow-up call with media.

Stacy Dean, deputy undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, told reporters the department "definitely learned a lot about what is workable, practical and has operational capability for schools" since the original implementation of higher nutrition standards originally required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.  

USDA currently has no restrictions standards on added sugars in school meals. The proposal would create a phased-in approach beginning in fall of 2025 on limiting added sugars in high-sugar products such as yogurts, cereal, grain-based cereals and flavored milks, and then reaching the total of less than 10% of total calories per week for breakfast and lunch by the fall of 2027.

Dean said on average the sugar content of most school lunches is around 11% of total calories right now, although school breakfasts are higher. She said the sugar levels was something USDA received “overwhelming input from pediatricians and public health professionals out of concern that there’s just too much sugar in kids’ diets.”

The proposed sugar limits initially target specific products, such as breakfast cereal. However, the School Nutrition Association’s recent survey found respondents struggle with supply chain challenges, and noted breakfast items such as cereals, granola bars, biscuits and pancakes were the most challenging foods to procure. 

For milk, USDA is considering two options. Under one, USDA would limit milk choices in elementary and middle schools (grades K-8) to a variety of unflavored milks only. Under the other option, USDA would maintain the current standard allowing all schools (grades K-12) to offer fat-free and low-fat milk, flavored and unflavored, in reimbursable school meals.

The proposal does not include whole milk as an option. Vilsack said that reflects USDA’s awareness of the cost and tight budgets school districts manage, but also the overall calories and fat content whole milk contributes to the entire meal. He recognizes it is important to provide students access to milk and one of the key reasons the department is soliciting input on flavored milk options in the rule.

In a joint statement, the National Milk Producers Federation and the International Dairy Foods Association welcomed the proposal to continue to allow low-fat milk options.

Jim Mulhern, NMPF president and CEO, did question why USDA would propose school meal options that could limit a child’s access to the nutrients dairy products provide and instead urged that they expand access to dairy options. “Providing low-fat flavored milk will increase students’ intake of nutrients vital for their growth and development,” he said.

Michael Dykes, IDFA president and CEO, said the most recent dietary guidelines indicate children are not receiving enough essential nutrients for growth, development, healthy immune function and overall wellness. “For years, parents and nutrition professionals have agreed that milk and dairy products must remain key building blocks in school meals,” Dykes said.

For whole grains, USDA will consider maintaining the current requirement that at least 80% of the weekly grains offered are whole grain-rich, based on ounce equivalents of grains offered, and will also consider an alternative under which all grains offered must meet the whole grain-rich requirement, except that one day each school week, schools may offer enriched grains. TheHealthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act aimed for a full 100% offering of whole-grain options. 

On sodium, rather than a “big stair step down” in levels allowed for students, Dean said USDA is instead adapting to an approach of continuous improvement by making small adjustments every two years and will ultimately land where the Food and Drug Administration is recommending sodium standards relative to the dietary guidelines.

USDA expects to issue a final rule in time for schools to plan for the 2024-2025 school year, although the sodium standards would not fully take effect until the fall of 2029.

Vilsack said this “distance” before final implementation should assist schools and food product developers to come up with food solutions that meet these new guidelines. “The expectation is and will be that over a period of time products will continue to be available, products will expand in terms of their availability and new products will be developed,” he said.

Vilsack also on Friday announced a Healthy Meals Incentive initiative intended to expand nutritious food options for school meals through financial investments and collaboration with the food industry. The Healthy Meals Incentive initiative will also help increase demand from agricultural producers to provide nutritious commodities, a USDA release added. 

Small and rural schools who may be faced with problems following the new guidelines will be eligible for grants of up to $150,000 each to help them improve school meal nutritional quality, Vilsack said. He also said there may also be unspent dollars provided to states in their educational accounts following the pandemic that school lunch administrators can tap into.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics welcomed the proposed revisions in school nutrition standards. In a statement, Ellen Shanley, the academy’s president who is a registered dietitian nutritionist, said, “While school nutrition standards were eased during the pandemic to help programs respond to challenges, the time is right to prioritize children’s nutrition and health.”

But the School Nutrition Association, which represents school meal directors, urged USDA to maintain the current school nutrition standards rather than implement the newly proposed rules which the group said was “unachievable for most schools nationwide.”

SNA said national labor shortages and supply chain disruptions had a lasting impact on the K-12 foodservice industry, limiting manufacturers’ and distributors’ capacity to produce and stock foods that meet highly specialized school nutrition standards, which limit calories, fat and sodium.

In SNA’s 2023 School Nutrition Trends Survey of school meal program directors nationwide they found that 88.8% of respondents reported challenges obtaining sufficient menu items meeting the whole-grain, low-sodium, low-fat options to meet current standards. The survey also found that 97.8% of school nutrition directors are concerned about the availability of foods that meet sodium limits and are acceptable to students.  

The Food and Nutritious Service will take comments on the proposed standards for 60 days, starting Tuesday. 

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