USDA Issues Transitional Nutrition Standards for School Meals
By Katie Bambacht
School nutrition professionals have worked tirelessly throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to nourish children in their communities despite major disruptions to school meal programs, which required innovation as well as flexibility in school nutrition standards.
To help schools build back from the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently announced transitional standards for milk, whole grains, and sodium in Child Nutrition Programs for school year (SY) 2022–2023 and 2023–2024. USDA implemented the transitional standards via a final rule effective July 1, 2022. The final rule establishes the following requirements:
- Milk: Schools may offer low-fat (1%) flavored milk in addition to nonfat flavored milk and low-fat or nonfat unflavored milk;
- Whole Grains: At least 80% of the grains served in school lunch and breakfast each week must be whole grain-rich; and
- Sodium: The weekly sodium limit for school lunch and breakfast will remain at the current level in SY 2022–2023. For school lunches only, there will be a 10% decrease in the sodium limit in SY 2023–2024. This aligns with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recently released guidance that establishes voluntary sodium reduction targets for processed, packaged, and prepared foods in the United States.
USDA regulations guide what is served in schools, and research shows that school meals are healthy. Children who participate in school meals consume more milk, fruits, and vegetables than non-participants, and they consume fewer desserts, snacks, and non-milk beverages.Between 2003 and 2018, foods consumed at schools improved significantly and provided the best mean diet quality of major U.S. food sources, without population disparities. These improvements can be partially attributed to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 that allowed USDA the opportunity to make real reforms to the school lunch and breakfast programs by improving the nutrition standards. The nutritional quality of school meals makes them a vital resource for our nation’s children, reaching nearly 30 million students every day,helping them come closer to meeting dietary guidance recommendations and serving as a hunger safety net for millions of children.
Looking specifically at milk, 77% of daily milk consumption for low-income children comes from school meals. Around two-thirds of milk served in schools is flavored. Nevertheless, flavored milk is a good or excellent source of the same 13 essential nutrients as unflavored milk, including calcium, vitamin D, and potassium—nutrients of public health concern that are lacking in the diets of many kids. A 2021 study found that children (2-to-18 years) who drank flavored milk had significantly higher consumption of fiber, calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, and vitamins D, A, B-12, and riboflavin than non-flavored milk drinkers. In addition, flavored milk contributes only 4% of added sugars in the diets of children 2–18 years,and flavored milk consumption is not associated with an increased BMI.
The updated guidance reflects how innovation in school meal food and beverage has been largely driven by federal nutrition standards and requests from local school food authorities. The majority of food and beverage items served in schools have a different nutritional profile compared to typical retail offerings, and flavored milk is a prime example. The calories in school milk have consistently fallen over the years as milk companies have worked with schools to reduce the amount of added sugars in flavored milk. The average flavored milk served in schools has 125 calories per half-pint—just 28 more calories than unflavored milk. Since 2007, the U.S. dairy community has reduced added sugars in school milk by 57%. Currently, the average added sugar content in eight ounces of flavored school milk is 7.1 grams.
The updated guidance allowing 1% (low-fat) flavored milk in schools has the potential to deliver several positive impacts. A 2017–2018 survey of schools that reintroduced low-fat flavored milk found that 73% of schools reported their students “liked 1% flavored milk better” and 58% of the schools reported an increase in the amount of milk served. In addition, nearly a third of schools saw an increase in average daily participation in meal programs, meaning that more children were closer to meeting recommended daily dairy servings to reap the expected nutrition and health benefits.
Planning for the future, USDA has stated that it is working to develop long-term nutrition standards based on the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and input from a wide range of partners including schools, families, and industry. USDA expects to publish a proposed rule in the fall of 2022 and finalize that rule in time for schools to plan for SY 2024–2025.
School meals have a major purpose in our nation’s schools as well as in the lives of families and communities. There is a need to continue informing and involving the public in developing school food standards and improving nutritional quality of school meals to promote innovation in updating school meal programs. Continued innovation in school meals is key to successfully nourishing future generations.
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