USDA proposal would shift school nutrition standards through 2029

Dive Brief:

  • School nutrition standards could see a significant update to requirements on whole grains, sugar and sodium, made gradually between fall 2024 and fall 2029, under a proposal announced Friday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
  • Beginning in fall 2024, schools would be required to offer mostly whole grain products, with the choice of occasional enriched grain products. By fall 2025, they would be expected to reduce weekly sodium limits for breakfast and lunch by 10% and limit high-sugar products like yogurts and cereal, though some flavored milk options with “reasonable limits” on added sugars would be allowed.
  • By fall 2027, added sugars would be limited to less than 10% of calories per week for breakfast and lunch, and weekly limits for sodium would decrease by another 10%. Sodium would then be reduced an additional 10% for school lunches alone in fall 2029. 

Dive Insight:

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the school nutrition standards proposal during a Friday livestream in which he highlighted concerns regarding childhood obesity in the U.S.

Vilsack cited a 2020 study published in the journal Health Affairs showing the positive effects in controlling childhood obesity that resulted from the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which was the 2010 reauthorization of child nutrition law. Childhood obesity would have spiraled even more out of control had that law not been enacted, the study found, crediting the law with reducing obesity by 47% in 2018 among children living in poverty. 

“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,” Vilsack said of the proposed nutrition standards. 

A September 2021 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pointed to a sharp rise in child and teen obesity during the pandemic. The body mass index of 432,302 people ages 2-19 about doubled since COVID-19 struck, according to the CDC.

The USDA developed the proposed rules after receiving thousands of comments and holding over 50 listening sessions with parents, school nutrition professionals, public health and nutrition experts, partners from tribal nations and the food industry. The changes are being suggested as part of the national strategy launched during the September White House conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health

But some school nutrition advocates said the USDA’s proposed standards are unachievable amid supply and labor shortages exacerbated by the pandemic. In a January survey of school meal program directors released by the School Nutrition Association, nearly 89% reported difficulties getting sufficient menu items that meet current standards for whole-grain, low-sodium or low-fat options. 

A majority of districts are also facing an increase in unpaid meal debt charges since the end of the federal pandemic waiver allowing universal school meals. 

“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,” said School Nutrition Association President Lori Adkins in a statement Friday after the proposed rules were released.

Meanwhile, Rep. Bobby Scott, a Democrat from Virginia and ranking member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, supported the USDA’s plan. 

“I am pleased that the Biden-Harris administration is making progress toward the evidence-based nutrition standards that our children need to grow up healthy,” Scott said. “Updating these standards will bring us one step closer to eliminating child malnutrition and the gaps in access to healthy food.”

The USDA’s proposal was designed to align with the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, as required by law.

For the next 60 days, the public may submit comments to the USDA on its proposed school meal standards rule. The department will then develop final school meal standards.

This article originally appeared in

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