USDA Limits Added Sugar and Sodium in School Meals!

School meals are getting healthier!

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has published its final rule to improve school food nutrition standards based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The changes – supported by 438 Salud America! members and 74,000 people overall via public comments – include limiting added sugars (for the first time), reducing sodium, and emphasizing locally sourced fruits and vegetables.

The updated rules will take effect starting July 1, 2024, but most changes will occur incrementally between fall 2025 and fall 2027.

“The new standards build on the great progress that school meals have made already and address remaining challenges – including reducing sugar in school breakfasts. These updates also make it easier for schools to access locally sourced products, benefiting both schools and the local economy,” said Cindy Long, USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service Administrator.

Let’s dive into the new changes and their impact on children’s health.

What Are the New School Meal Changes?

The key updates to the nutrition standards include:

Limiting added sugars. For the first time, added sugars will be limited in school meals nationwide, with small changes happening by fall 2025 and full implementation by fall 2027.

Also, starting in fall 2024, it will be easier for schools to serve protein-rich breakfast foods (yogurt, tofu, eggs, nuts, and seeds), which can further reduce sugary food options.

“USDA heard concerns from parents and teachers about excessive amounts of added sugars in some foods, which factored into this new limit,” according to the USDA. “Child care operators will also begin limiting added sugars in cereals and yogurts – rather than total sugars.”

Limiting added sugars in flavored milk. Schools can continue to offer flavored and unflavored milk, but the changes add a new limit on added sugars in flavored milk served at breakfast.

“Thirty-seven school milk processors – representing more than 90% of the school milk volume nationwide – have already committed to providing nutritious school milk options that meet this limit on added sugars,” according to the USDA.

Reducing sodium. Schools must slightly reduce sodium content in their meals by Fall 2027.

“In response to public comments, USDA is only requiring one sodium reduction, and not the three incremental reductions that were proposed last year,” according to the USDA. “This change still moves our children in the right direction and gives schools and industry the lead time they need to prepare.”

Improving Whole Grains. Current nutrition standards for whole grains will not change.

“Schools will continue to offer students a variety of nutrient-rich whole grains and have the option to offer some enriched grains to meet students’ cultural and taste preferences,” according to the USDA.

In addition, USDA’s changes will support local food purchases by allowing the option to require unprocessed agricultural products to be locally grown, raised, or caught when making purchases for school meal programs.

Why Are Changes Needed?

These changes to the school meal nutrition standards come from public feedback and considering the latest science-based recommendations.

“We all share the goal of helping children reach their full potential,” said Tom Vilsack, Agriculture Secretary. “Like teachers, classrooms, books, and computers, nutritious school meals are an essential part of the school environment, and when we raise the bar for school meals, it empowers our kids to achieve greater success inside and outside of the classroom.

Similarly, research shows that school meals are the most nutritious food source for American school children.

However, most children are consuming too much added sugars and sodium and not enough fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

The USDA’s new rules aim to address child nutrition.

While the new rules take effect starting July 1, 2024, program operators are not required to make any menu changes until the 2025-26 school year at the earliest.

Latino Children and Nutrition

Latinos face barriers when it comes to both food security and nutrition security.

Latino kids also consume more sugary drinks—soda, sports drinks, sugary fruit juices, and flavored milk—than the average child, according to a Salud America! resource.

This contributes to Latino health disparities in diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity.

Schools with more Latino students tend to have weaker policies for school snacks and drinks. These schools are less likely to implement nutritional guidelines.

“School policy and decision makers should prioritize helping schools in Latino communities effectively implement federal nutrition standards,” according to a Salud America! research review. “Schools should also consider nutritional education that covers schools and the surrounding food environment.”

Improving Nutrition in Your Area

While steps are being taken to ensure children’s nutrition through school meals, what about the health and nutrition of your community?

Find out by exploring your own Salud America! Health Equity Report Card.

Enter your county name and find local data with interactive maps and comparative gauges, which can help you visualize and examine local inequities in various health topics, including nutrition, housing, transportation, and mental and physical health.

Compare your area to the rest of your state and nation.

You can also share the results with local leaders and organizations in your community to advocate for change and health equity in your area.


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