USDA has finalized its rule on school meal standards to include added sugar reductions that were proposed last year, but less severe cuts on sodium.

Schools serve lunches to nearly 30 million children every day, according to USDA. These meals are a key source of nutrition for over half of these children. 

“It's important to underscore that school meals matter,” Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters. “They matter for the students who consume them. In some cases, in in far too many cases, it’s often the only meal or meals that youngsters may get during the day. It matters to them and to their families.” 

The final rule includes phased cuts to added sugars, starting with product-based limits on breakfast cereals, yogurt and flavored milk starting July 2025. As initially listed in the proposed standards, added sugars will be limited to 10% of each week's school meals menu as recommended in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The weekly limits will take effect starting July 2027.

Nine out of ten schools currently exceed dietary guidelines for added sugars in breakfast, said Meghan Maroney, who leads federal child nutrition work at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. 

“We know that's just way too high for kids' health, and school meals should protect and promote child health not exacerbate and contribute to chronic disease, which we know that too many added sugars can do,” Maroney said. 

While schools can continue to offer flavored and unflavored milk, the new standards include a limit on added sugars in flavored milk served at breakfast and lunch by fall 2025. Thirty-seven school milk processors, which make up over 90% of the school milk nationwide, have already committed to providing options that meet the limit on added sugar. 

USDA decided to keep access to flavored milk to motivate young children to actually consume milk and offer choice, Vilsack said. 

The Sugar Association supported the reduction of added sugars but cautioned against imposing added sugar limits on individual products like flavored milk that provide nutrients. Cutting out added sugar could also lead to an increase in artificial sweeteners, which are not disclosed in school meals, the group wrote in a statement. 

"School meals standards should not be another catalyst for even greater substitution of low- and no-calorie sweeteners in foods for children, for whom intake is not encouraged," said Courtney Gaine, Sugar Association president and CEO. 

Notably, the sodium standard is scaled back from the proposed rule. Schools will need to slightly reduce sodium content in their meals by fall 2027 through one sodium reduction rather than the three incremental reductions proposed last year. 

The proposed regulation would have cut sodium by a total of 30%.  

The new single reduction would cut sodium in breakfast by 10% and 15% for lunch. Vilsack said the agency was not able to reduce sodium levels as much as proposed because of a congressional directive included in a 2024 appropriations bill. 

Tom_Vilsack_24_Classic_4.jpgAgriculture Secretary Tom VilsackExcess sodium consumption increases the risk of elevated blood pressure, heart disease and stroke, Maroney said ahead of the final rule’s release.

After the proposed rule came out, Maroney said she hoped USDA would make further reductions to the sodium levels. At the proposed limit, children up to age eight would get 83% of their daily sodium limit from breakfast and lunch combined. Less progress on sodium reduction makes it even harder for a full day to meet the recommended dietary guidelines, she said.   

“I recognize there is a lot of challenges related to sodium reduction and schools do need support and consistent direction from USDA for industry to continue to reformulate products and make them palatable and make them acceptable,” Maroney said. “But you know, schools have already done a lot of work and are well on their way to meeting stronger standards and we have to commit to sodium reduction to protect student health.” 

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Dairy industry representatives applauded USDA for reaffirming lactose-free milk as an option in reimbursable meals, and for maintaining flavored milk availability. The International Dairy Food Association said Wednesday that while it hoped to exclude sodium used for food safety and functional purposes, it appreciates the more attainable school meal sodium target. 

However, IDFA said it was disappointed that USDA set added sugar limits for yogurt, a nutrient-dense food. It also criticized the agency for not allowing 2% and whole milk in school meals.  

Current nutrition standards on whole grains are not affected by the rule. Starting in fall 2024, it will be easier for schools to serve protein-rich breakfast food like yogurt, tofu and eggs to reduce sugary options for students on vegetarian diets. Schools will also have the option to require unprocessed products to be locally grown, raised or caught when purchasing for school meal programs. 

The new rule also sets limits on the amount of foreign-made foods that schools can purchase. USDA will offer some flexibility to schools who may struggle to meet these requirements due to a lack of supply, but the goal is to support domestic producers, Vilsack said. 

The rule also solidifies a pandemic-era policy on financial penalties for non-compliant schools, said Cindy Long, USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service administrator. Moving forward, states are no longer required to automatically implement financial penalties for schools that are working toward the standards but falling short in some way. Instead, the state can work with the school and give them additional time if needed. Financial penalties would only apply to schools willfully or more seriously violating the program. 

The final rule earned support from School Nutrition Association for its “more attainable, long-term nutrition goals,” the group wrote in a statement. SNA also urged Congress and USDA to provide additional funding for schools to successfully implement these new standards. 

“Further sodium and sugar reductions will require investments in staffing, training and equipment to expand scratch cooking,” said SNA President Chris Derico in a statement. “USDA and Congress must ensure schools, grappling with rising costs, labor shortages and procurement issues, have the support and funding needed to successfully implement these new rules."

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