The U.S. Department of Agriculture has released new proposed guidelines for school meals aimed at lowering the amount of sugar and sodium in school meals, marking the first time the USDA has called for limiting the amount of added sugars in school meals.
More than 15 million students eat school-provided breakfasts and 29.3 million eat lunches provided by their schools, so what goes into those meals has a major influence on the health of children in the United States.
And as obesity rates continue to rise among children and adolescents, which can lead to myriad health problems, school meals are a powerful lever for policymakers to influence what kids eat.
About one in five children in the United States are obese. Obesity is tied to several other negative physical and mental health conditions in kids, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, including high blood pressure and cholesterol, breathing problems, type 2 diabetes, anxiety, and depression—which can directly and indirectly affect students’ abilities to learn.
Some research has found that obesity among children and teens rose sharply over the pandemic, likely caused by kids exercising less, eating more processed foods, and spending more time on screens. That comes on top of a long-running upward trend in childhood obesity rates.
This trend recently prompted the American Academy of Pediatrics to issue guidance promoting a more aggressive approach to treating childhood obesity. Those guidelines, which have received pushback, call for treating obesity in kids as young as 12 and 13 with medications and even potentially surgery.
The new nutrition guidelines for school meals, once finalized, would be implemented over several years, the USDA said.
These are proposals, and school nutrition professionals, public health experts, industry representatives, and parents will all have the opportunity to weigh in over a 60-day comment period starting on Feb 7.
What’s in the proposed school meal changes? (And what will happen to chocolate milk?)
The proposed changes, which U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack emphasized in a press conference, would be implemented incrementally, starting by limiting added sugars in some high-sugar foods, then being more generally applied to the weekly menu later on, and eventually notching down limits on sodium in school meals. The new proposed guidelines would also promote more whole grain foods.
Flavored milk will continue to be allowed with limitations on the amount of added sugars, although Vilsack said that it’s been a challenge deciding who should have access to flavored milk and that the USDA is looking for feedback on those guidelines.
Finally, the proposed guidelines would do more to promote buying American food and products and sourcing more locally grown foods.
“It’s important to create that link between producers of the foods that our youngsters are consuming and our youngsters,” said Vilsack. “For that reason, the standards that we announced today, are really going to focus on figuring out ways in which we can encourage better linkage between local and regional food suppliers and schools.”
The proposed guidelines have already drawn mixed feedback.
The School Nutrition Association, which represents school food service directors from across the country, said in a statement that it is urging the USDA to maintain its current standards, calling the newly proposed guidelines “unachievable for most schools nationwide.”
SNA President Lori Adkins said that “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.”
For example, the SNA said a recent survey of its members found that nearly 89 percent of schools were having trouble obtaining enough menu items to meet the current standards around whole grains, sodium, and sugar.
The American Heart Association, meanwhile, applauded the proposed guidelines, in particular the standards to reduce added sugars and sodium in school meals.
“Added sugars are a significant source of excess calories, provide no nutritional value and may cause weight gain and increased risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other chronic health conditions,” the AHA said in a statement. “The updated standards also would continue critical reductions of sodium in school meals. More than 90 percent of children consume too much sodium, and taste preferences— including those for salty food—begin early in life.”
Shannon Ebron, the director of child nutrition for the Riverview Gardens school district in St. Louis, Mo., spoke during the USDA press conference announcing the proposed guidelines. She said while she was excited about some of the guidelines, such as the focus on getting local produce into schools, there are other issues she said that still need to be addressed.
A big one is how little time students are given to eat their meals, which makes it harder for schools to give them a nutritious diet.
“Healthy foods take more time to eat,” Ebron said. “I would hope that we have more seat time for our children to eat the healthy meals that my staff and I are providing to our school district.”