The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has released its proposed updates to the School Nutrition Standards. The proposed rules are meant to reflect the most recent dietary guidelines, as required by law, according to the department.
The public will be able to comment on the proposed rules Feb. 7 through April 10. Those comments will be taken into account before the USDA issues a final rule.
Here’s a look at what’s being considered.
The USDA proposes including added sugar restrictions in school meals for the very first time.
The sugar restrictions would be phased in over a period of years. Phase one would begin in the fall of 2025 and would put added sugar limits on grain-based desserts, breakfast cereals, yogurts and flavored milks.
Items such as doughnuts, sweet rolls, toaster pastries, coffee cakes and other grain-based desserts would be limited to 2 ounce equivalents per week in school breakfast. This is consistent with the current requirement for school lunch.
Breakfast cereals would be limited to no more than 6 grams of added sugars per dry ounce. These restrictions would also apply to the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) and would replace CACFP’s current total sugars limit.
Yogurts would not be able to include more than 12 grams of added sugars per 6 ounces, while flavored milks would be limited to no more than 10 grams per 8 fluid ounces for milk served with lunch or breakfast. For flavored milks sold outside of lunch and breakfast to middle- and high-schoolers, the limit would be 15 grams of added sugars per 12 ounces.
Phase two would start during the fall of 2027 and would limit added sugars to an average of less than 10% of calories per meal for both breakfasts and lunches. This weekly limit would be in addition to the limits included in phase one.
Currently, schools are required to offer fat-free and/or low-fat unflavored milk as part of all school breakfast and lunches. They are allowed to offer flavored versions of these milks as well.
The USDA has proposed two options for updated flavored milk requirements. One option would limit flavored milk to only students in grades 9-12, while the other would maintain the current standard and allow flavored milk for children in all grade levels. Added sugars in flavored milk would still be limited for both options per the new added sugars provision.
The current sodium restrictions for schools require that schools meet the target one sodium requirements that went into effect last summer. Sodium will be further limited this July when target two sodium requirements take effect.
The sodium targets vary by student age level and meal, and are more lenient for older students. Starting in July, high school lunches must contain less than 1,280 mg of sodium and breakfasts must contain less than 640 mg of sodium. Also as of July, elementary lunches must have less than 1,110 mg of sodium and breakfasts must have less than 540 mg.
The USDA is proposing further sodium reductions that would be phased in over a period of years. There would be two sodium reductions for breakfast (10% in fall 2025 and an additional 10% in fall 2027) and three for lunch (10% in fall 2025, 10% in fall 2027 and 10% in fall 2029).
The School Nutrition Association (SNA) has warned that K-12 operators are struggling to meet even the current sodium targets and, in its 2023 Position Paper, called on the USDA to avoid implementing further sodium restrictions. A survey recently published by the SNA revealed that 97.8% of school nutrition directors are concerned about the availability of foods that meet the target one sodium limits and are acceptable to students.
Under current requirements, at least 80% of the grains offered in school lunch and breakfast programs each week be whole-grain rich. To meet that standard, a product must contain at least 50% whole grains, and the remaining grains must be either enriched, bran or germ.
Similar to the milk provision, the USDA has two proposed options for updating this standard. In option one, the current standard would remain. In option two, schools would be allowed to serve non-whole, enriched grain foods—such as refined, enriched pasta or flour tortillas—one day out of the week.
Like sodium, meeting the current whole-grains standard has been a challenge for school nutrition operators, according to the SNA.
“Research shows students receive their healthiest meals at school, thanks to current nutrition standards,” SNA President Lori Adkins said in a press release. “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.”
The organization says it will submit more detailed comments on the proposed rules and continue its talks with USDA officials on how to best support students.