USDA wants to make sure kids get the most nutritious meals from school

key takeaways

  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture has released transitional school nutrition standards for milk, whole grains, and sodium intake for the next two school years.
  • The standards are designed to give schools time to meet nutritional standards while continuing to face labor shortages and supply chain issues brought on by the pandemic.
  • The USDA said it will work with school nutrition stakeholders to develop long-term standards that will go into effect for the 2024-2025 school year.

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of school meals, especially for families facing food insecurity. To strengthen nutritional standards for school meal plans, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has issued stricter guidelines for the next two school years.

The USDA will require schools and nurseries to provide low-fat or nonfat unflavored milk. 1% flavored low-fat milk is available with an unflavored option. At least 80% of grains must be high in whole grains.

While the current sodium limit remains the same, starting in the 2023-2024 school year, the limit will be reduced by 10%. For other foods, school menus must follow the 2012 USDA standard, which calls for more fruit, vegetable and whole grain options.

The USDA’s efforts to establish better nutritional standards have been successful, as a recent study found that children get their most nutritious meals at school.

While many schools met their 2012 standards before the pandemic, a USDA spokesperson told VigorTip that some guidelines, especially those for milk, whole grains and sodium, were never fully met due to legislative action. in place.

The newly announced transition standards are designed to give schools more time to meet all USDA guidelines while still recovering from the operational challenges of the pandemic.

“We’re very pleased with this news,” School Nutrition Association spokeswoman Diane Platt-Hefner told VigorTip. “It’s a relief for our members that they don’t have to worry about trying to implement additional sodium reductions now.”

However, Pratt-Heavner added that school nutrition professionals are still awaiting announcements about a COVID-19 waiver that allows for flexible meal plans such as meal pickup for students studying remotely.

“They’re very concerned about extending those waivers because they’re already placing orders for next year and they don’t know what their budget is,” shared Pratt-Heavner.

USDA School Nutrition Exemption

A USDA waiver addresses the rising cost of feeding students during the pandemic. “They incur a lot of extra cost, whether it’s PPE or packaging for takeaway food,” Pratt-Heavner said.

Unless extended, those waivers will expire on June 30. Pratt-Heavner added that waiver extensions and higher reimbursement rates are necessary to help school nutrition professionals navigate supply chain disruptions that continue to drive up meal costs.

Elizabeth Campbell, M.D., senior director of legislative and government affairs at the College of Nutrition and Dietetics, told VigorTip that the college has also advocated for a re-extension of the waiver.

“Every day, I get emails from members saying ‘the price of my items has gone up’, ‘I’m having a hard time keeping staff’, ‘people are exhausted.’ This is happening all over the country, there are Labor shortages, supply chain issues, and frankly, those who just hit a wall,” Campbell said.

While experts cannot predict exactly when the global supply chain issues will be resolved, the report suggests the problems will persist until 2022.

“At this point, people are doing the best they can. No matter what the standard is, they’re going to serve what they can get. There’s such a real challenge in front of them,” Campbell said. “They always try to do what is best for their children, whether that might always be the challenge.”

Congress introduced a bipartisan bill on Feb. 4 that would extend the waiver through the end of the 2022-2023 school year.

The future of school nutrition guidelines

While the new USDA standards are only transitional, the department plans to implement long-term school nutrition standards starting in 2024. Officials will consult with school nutrition stakeholders to make these standards both nutritious and achievable.

“We’ve been in communication with the USDA, and we intend to work closely with them,” Campbell said. “We’re really happy that they’re open to getting feedback from stakeholders and making sure they take into account the people running the program.”

School nutrition advocates also acknowledge that long-term standards must ensure children still enjoy eating these more nutritious foods.

“We wanted to highlight how much progress has been made and the importance of making sure kids still want to eat in our school cafeterias,” Pratt-Heavner said. “It’s important to find the right balance between making sure these meals are healthy and appealing. balance.”

what does this mean to you

If you’d like to learn more about supply chain issues affecting school lunch programs, consider watching this animated short from the School Nutrition Association. You can also follow updates on the Keeping School Meals Flexible Act to track if and when Congress decides to extend the waivers for the 2022/2023 school year.