School Lunch Tables

USDA Proposes Crackdown on Sugar and Sodium in New School Meal Standards

Feb. 6, 2023
Flavored milks, even yogurt are in the crosshairs; comment period open for new requirements in school breakfast and lunch programs.

USDA on Feb. 3 proposed new nutrition standards for school meals, including the first limits on added sugars and reductions in sodium. It could mean the end for some sweetened cereals, pastries, flavored milks and even yogurt.

Using a phased approach, the plan proposes limits on added sugars beginning with the 2025-2026 school year, “targeting the most common sources of added sugars in school meals: breakfast cereals, flavored milks, grain-based desserts and yogurt.”

A MarketWatch report said that under the plan, an 8-oz. serving of chocolate milk could contain no more than 10g of sugar in 2025. Some popular flavored milks now contain twice that amount.

Then, in the fall of 2027, the rule proposes limiting overall added sugars across the weekly menu to less than 10% of calories per meal, on average, “to better align meals with the Dietary Guidelines,” said USDA.

The proposal also would reduce sodium in school meals by 30% by the fall of 2029, also to align with federal guidelines that recommend 2,300mg per day for ages 14 and older, less for younger children. For the school meal programs, that means cutting sodium from an average of about 1,280mg in a current lunch to 935mg.

“For comparison, a typical turkey sandwich with mustard and cheese might contain 1,500 milligrams of sodium,” Market Watch reported.

The proposal also emphasizes more use of products that are primarily whole-grain.

In a May 2022 report to Congress, USDA said, “Currently, there is no standard for total sugars or added sugars in meals served through the National School Lunch Program or School Breakfast Program, called ‘reimbursable meals.’ All other foods and beverages sold in schools during the school day (for example, in vending machines or a la carte in the cafeteria) … must have less than 35% of total weight from sugar, but there is no standard for competitive foods related to added sugars or added sugars as a percentage of calories.”

Reducing sugar and salt in school meals can help decrease the risk of disease in children, including obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.

“Many children aren’t getting the nutrition they need, and diet-related diseases are on the rise,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, in announcing the proposals. “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.”

Last year, USDA issued transitional nutrition standards for school years 2022-23 and 2023-24 to give schools guidance after requirements were temporarily loosened during the height of the pandemic. This also gave the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) time to develop the updated standards.

By law, USDA is required to set standards for the foods and beverages served through the school meal programs – which are reimbursed by the agency – including nutrition standards that align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. School nutrition professionals develop meals that fit within those standards and reflect local tastes and preferences. Research shows that these standards are effective at promoting good nutrition, and kids who eat school meals are more likely to consume nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, and dairy products.

“USDA understands that thoughtful implementation of the updates will take time and teamwork,” said Stacy Dean, deputy under secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services. “We’re proposing these changes now to build in plenty of time for planning and collaboration with all of our school nutrition partners.”

USDA’s FNS encourages all interested parties to comment on the proposed school meal standards rule during the 60-day comment period that begins Feb. 7.

About the Author

Dave Fusaro | Editor in Chief

Dave Fusaro has served as editor in chief of Food Processing magazine since 2003. Dave has 30 years experience in food & beverage industry journalism and has won several national ASBPE writing awards for his Food Processing stories. Dave has been interviewed on CNN, quoted in national newspapers and he authored a 200-page market research report on the milk industry. Formerly an award-winning newspaper reporter who specialized in business writing, he holds a BA in journalism from Marquette University. Prior to joining Food Processing, Dave was Editor-In-Chief of Dairy Foods and was Managing Editor of Prepared Foods.

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