Leadership Symposium Early Bird Deadline Approaching | Join K-12 leaders nationwide for three days of empowering strategies, networking, and inspiration! Discounted pricing ends March 1. Register today.

USDA Clamps Down on Salt and Sugar in Proposed School Nutrition Guidelines

By Arianna Prothero — February 03, 2023 4 min read
Young boy in a school lunchroom cafeteria line and choosing a slice of pizza to put on his tray which includes an apple.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.”

See also

Image of a school lunch tray with food and milk.

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.”


Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Science of Reading: Emphasis on Language Comprehension
Dive into language comprehension through a breakdown of the Science of Reading with an interactive demonstration.
Content provided by Be GLAD
English-Language Learners Webinar English Learners and the Science of Reading: What Works in the Classroom
ELs & emergent bilinguals deserve the best reading instruction! The Reading League & NCEL join forces on best practices. Learn more in our webinar with both organizations.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal Biden Admin. Says New K-12 Agenda Tackles Absenteeism, Tutoring, Extended Learning
The White House unveiled a set of K-12 priorities at the start of an election year.
4 min read
U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona participates in a roundtable discussion with students from Dartmouth College on Jan. 10, 2024, on the school's campus, in Hanover, N.H.
U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona participates in a roundtable discussion with students from Dartmouth College on Jan. 10, 2024, on the school's campus, in Hanover, N.H.
Steven Senne/AP
Federal Lawmakers Want to Reauthorize a Major Education Research Law. What Stands in the Way?
Lawmakers have tried and failed to reauthorize the Education Sciences Reform Act over the past nearly two decades.
7 min read
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., left, joins Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., left, as Starbucks founder Howard Schultz answers questions about the company's actions during an ongoing employee unionizing campaign, at the Capitol in Washington, on March 29, 2023.
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., left, joins Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., left, at the Capitol in Washington, on March 29, 2023. The two lawmakers sponsored a bill to reauthorize the Education Sciences Reform Act.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Federal Will the Government Actually Shut Down This Time? What Educators Should Know
The federal government is once again on the verge of shutting down. Here's why educators should care, but shouldn't necessarily worry.
1 min read
Photo illustration of Capitol building and closed sign.
Federal Biden Admin. Warns Schools to Protect Students From Antisemitism, Islamophobia
The U.S. Department of Education released a "Dear Colleague" letter reminding schools of their obligation to address discrimination.
3 min read
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in his office at the Department of Education on Sept. 20, 2023 in Washington.
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks during an interview in his office at the U.S. Department of Education on Sept. 20, 2023 in Washington.
Mark Schiefelbein/AP