Nutrition teams worry changes to the USDA’s school meal standards will have unintended consequences

Operators share how stricter rules for sodium and sugar would impact their programs, and what they think is missing from the proposed updates.
Students carrying lunch trays
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Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a list of proposed changes to its School Nutrition Standards.

The new school meal standards would further limit sodium amounts and add sugar restrictions for the first time. They’re also being floated at a time when school nutrition teams and food manufacturers continue to deal with supply chain disruptions, rising costs and labor shortages.

FoodService Director asked K-12 operators to share their thoughts and concerns about the proposed changes and their potential impact on school foodservice. Here’s what two had to say.

Challenges ahead

Cincinnati Public Schools has had a reduced sugar policy in place for many years, so limiting added sugars to an average of less than 10% of calories per meal before the 2027-28 school year, as required by phase two of the restrictions, shouldn’t be a challenge, says Food Service Director Jessica Shelly.

Shelly is concerned, however, that these restrictions will negatively impact the district’s clean label program, which aims to eliminate artificial dyes, colors, preservatives and sweeteners from its meals.

“My concern is companies may replace sugar (and salt) with additives that have the same mouthfeel and flavor of sugar and salt, which takes us in the opposite direction,” she says.

She says she’d also like to see a product-based sugar limit for grain-based desserts, rather than the assumption that all grain-based desserts are high in sugar, thus limiting schools to serving only 2 ounces of them a week.

“I know districts that scratch make a delicious 2-ounce whole-grain granola bar for their students,” she says. “With this new standard, the week they serve the granola bar, they would not be able to also menu a 1-ounce whole-grain graham cracker to go with their fresh fruit and yogurt parfait because that would put them over the 2-ounce weekly limit.”

In addition, Shelly would like the USDA to allow schools to serve 2 ounces of meat or a meat alternative in place of a grain at breakfast. That flexibility would help them reduce sugar levels in the morning meal, she says.

Tougher on salt

More stringent sodium restrictions are another concern for operators.

Items that USDA requires schools to serve, such as milk and whole grains, naturally contain sodium, so meeting the proposed phase two restrictions will be a challenge, Shelly says. She believes the USDA should treat sodium like sugar and limit only added sodium, rather than sodium that naturally occurs in foods.

The nutrition team at Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Ky., is also concerned about further sodium restrictions. Many of the regional favorites it serves, such as hot sauce, would be impacted under the proposed standards, says Assistant Director of Nutrition Dan Ellnor.

“Maintaining palatability of offerings is critical to ensure the most at-risk and food-insecure students continue to eat healthy meals,” Ellnor says. “Congress should continue the current standards.”

His team is also worried that manufacturers won’t be able to meet the new standards and will continue to cut K-12 products as a result.

“Manufacturers such as JTM have had to slash K-12 items from 179 items to 53, and some vendors, such as Simplot, have chosen to pull out of commodity processing already,” says Ellnor. “Further tightening of standards will exacerbate these issues.”

What was missed

The proposed standards don’t include changes that some school nutrition operators have been requesting for some time.

Team members at Jefferson County, for example, hoped the proposed updates would make permanent the temporary meal reimbursements of 40 cents for lunch and 15 cents for breakfast. They would also have loved to see the standards include universal free meals for all students, regardless of family income.

Since the district reverted to charging for meals after the USDA’s COVID-19 waivers expired last summer, it has accumulated over $48,000 in meal debt.

“Meal applications only capture income; they do not take into account expenses for medical bills, rent and other factors that impact the ability of everyday families to make ends meet,” Ellnor says. “The pandemic demonstrated to us that countless families depend upon meals provided by schools.” 

Another issue with the standards raised by both Ellnor and Shelly is that they do not specify the length of time students should have for school meals. Both wished the USDA had incorporated mealtime requirements to make sure students have enough time to sit down and eat.

Shelly said she would also love for the USDA to partner with the U.S. Department of Education on nutrition programming to educate students about making healthy choices and preparing nutritious meals outside of the school day.

“I can serve reduced-sugar, reduced-sodium, whole grain-rich food every day, but it won't matter if when the students leave our school building, they snack and have meals that are full of empty calories because they haven't been taught how to select and prepare healthy meals,” she says.

The USDA is accepting public comments on the proposed rules through April 10.



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