School meals for millions of children in the United States would include less sugar, more whole grains, and lower sodium under new standards proposed by the Biden administration on Friday.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the updated standards, to be rolled out over the next several years, were essential to tackling health concerns like childhood obesity.
“This is a national security imperative. It’s a healthcare imperative for our children. It’s an equity issue. It’s an educational achievement issue. And it’s an economic competitiveness issue,” he said in a livestreamed event announcing the standards.
Under the proposed standards, by fall 2024, 80% of the grains provided by schools would need to be whole grain. By fall 2025, there would be limits for high-sugar products like cereals and yogurts, added sugar in flavored milks, and sodium. Future years would see additional limits on added sugar and sodium.
Some school nutrition directors worry the stricter guidelines will force schools to scale back menus, inadvertently pushing students to less healthy food choices.
“Most districts allow students to leave campus. They’ll be hitting the convenience stores, the fast-food restaurants,” said Michael Gasper, nutrition services supervisor for the School District of Holmen, Wisconsin. “Nutrition is only nutrition if they eat it.”
School meal programs continue to struggle with inflated food prices and labor shortages, making new regulations difficult to implement, Gasper added.
The debate over school nutrition has spanned several administrations. The Obama administration hiked standards, requiring schools to serve fruits and vegetables daily and offer more whole grains. Under the Trump administration, some of those requirements were rolled back.
The Food Research & Action Center, a leading nutrition and hunger group, cheered Friday’s announcement.
“These proposed evidence-based standards will make for a healthier school day,” said FRAC President Luis Guardia in a statement.
Dairy industry advocates pushed back on the potential limits to flavored milk in schools.
“While we are pleased that this proposed rule continues to make dairy central to child nutrition, we are concerned with USDA’s ongoing efforts to propose limitations to milk and dairy in school meals,” said Michael Dykes, chief executive of the International Dairy Foods Association.
About 30 million students eat school lunches and 15 million eat school breakfasts each year, according to Department of Agriculture data.
The Biden administration committed to updating school meal nutrition standards as part of its strategy laid out at a conference on hunger last year.
The USDA will collect comments on the proposed rule.