Reflections from SNIC

Published in FSD K-12 Spotlight

Sodium reduction and an update from the USDA were highlights of the School Nutrition Association’s leadership conference.

Sodium was top of mind at the School Nutrition Association’s SNIC conference last week. This fall marks the first of three sodium reductions, as specified under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The other two reductions (to be implemented in school years 2017-2018 and 2022-2023, respectively) are eliciting concern—and in some cases ire—from operators and manufacturers alike.

When the law was written, the sodium rules stated that the second and third reductions would be re-evaluated to take into consideration the most recent data and industry trends to see whether the proposed reduction amounts needed to be changed. Translation: If Americans as a whole haven’t lowered their intake of sodium, we might reduce the amount of the sodium cuts for school meals.

“We don’t want contraband salt shakers,” in school cafeterias, Janey Thornton, deputy under secretary for the USDA’s Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, said at the conference. “There will be new dietary guidelines coming out in 2015,” she said. “[The sodium reductions] will be a common-sense approach. If we can’t make the products [to meet the lower sodium levels], then obviously we’re not going to be able to move forward with that.”

Thornton was trying to calm the crowd, but one manufacturer in the room wasn’t biting. His conundrum was this: “Do we spend our R&D dollars now to try to meet those 2017 guidelines when we aren’t sure what those will be? We have to decide that now? And then what’s the target? Because school foodservice directors have to manage sodium across all menus while manufacturers look at the sodium reduction on a per-item basis, so how much sodium do we take out of items?”

The manufacturer also mentioned his team has already spent a great deal of money to reformulate products to meet the first level of reductions. He said his company was willing to do that because it was the right thing to do and the company has a commitment to schools. But he warned that other manufacturers might not have the same reaction; instead, they might see the amount of money needed to meet the sodium numbers and run. 

Operators were just as concerned about the reformulation of products to meet the new sodium requirements. Cheese specifically was brought up. The question was this: “At what point is cheese not cheese if you take out all the sodium? At some point it won’t even melt.”

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