USDA extends comment period for proposed changes to school nutrition standards

Dive Brief:

  • To give the public more time to review the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s proposed rule on revising school meal nutrition standards, the deadline for the public comment period has been extended from April 10 to May 10, the department announced Friday.
  • As of Monday, USDA received 65,982 comments on its proposal to make gradual yet significant changes to school nutrition requirements on whole grains, sugar and sodium. 
  • The USDA’s proposal would require schools to offer mostly whole grain products beginning in fall 2024, with gradual sugar and sodium content reductions occurring through 2029.

Dive Insight:

During a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on Wednesday, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack if the department is consulting school nutrition directors on this proposed rule and how it will ensure the additional requirements won’t deter students from eating school meals. 

Citing the Maine School Nutrition Association’s concerns, Collins said the USDA’s suggestion to further reduce sugar and sodium levels in school meals will make the food “taste less and less like anything the students have ever eaten” and will inevitably be thrown away.

Vilsack told Collins that USDA “absolutely” reached out to school nutrition directors and has received their input. The suggested timeline also gives schools and the food industry time to adjust to the proposed changes to school nutrition standards, he added. 

“I would also point out that many of the reduced sugar products that we’re talking about are already in the marketplace,” Vilsack said. “They’re already available, and in fact, they’re being used in schools today … with some degree of success.”

Under the USDA’s proposal, schools would have to offer mostly whole grain products, with the occasional choice of enriched grain products, beginning in fall 2024. Weekly sodium limits would have to drop by 10% for breakfast and lunch by fall 2025, and high-sugar yogurt and cereal products would be limited.

On top of that, added sugars would be reduced to less than 10% of calories per week for breakfast and lunch by fall 2027. Weekly sodium limits would also decrease another 10% at the same time. Eventually, in fall 2029, sodium would be reduced by an additional 10% for school lunches alone.

The School Nutrition Association submitted its comment on the USDA’s proposal on March 27, noting that since the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, school nutrition professionals have worked to reduce sodium, calories and fat in the food served in school meals.

But, SNA wrote, “With no end in sight to supply chain and labor challenges, most school meal programs nationwide simply lack the capacity to meet these proposed nutrition mandates and exceed transitional standards.”

In response to the proposal, SNA suggests the department maintain the current transitional sodium limits that take effect July 1. Before proposing further sodium reductions, there should be research on the current impact on menu planning, meal participation and students’ health, SNA said. 

Additionally, the organization said, schools should be allowed to exclude naturally occurring sodium in future reductions.

Regarding the USDA’s goal of lowering sugar in school meals, the department should allow meats or meat alternatives to be served instead of an entire grain component at breakfast no more than three times per week, SNA said. 

The USDA’s current requirement that at least 80% of weekly grains offered are whole-grain should remain, SNA said — but that should be only under the condition a waiver is extended to protect school meal programs from financial penalties if they can prove supply chain disruptions prevented them from meeting nutrition standards

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