The School Nutrition Association (SNA) is asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to hold off on further restricting the sorts of products that can be used in school meals and instead focus on ways the department can expand student access to those meals.
The SNA says it worries that plans to enact stricter nutrition standards will turn students away and add increased strain for foodservice teams already contending with rising costs and supply chain issues.
“Students’ tastes will not adjust to meals meeting stricter school nutrition standards when there are no mandatory nutrition standards for the commercial market or other federal nutrition programs,” the SNA wrote in comments to the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service. “Since schools are the healthiest place Americans eat, a further drop in student meal participation would be contrary to goals of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”
The USDA in February released proposed changes to its School Nutrition Standards, which would introduce added sugar limits and further decrease the sodium allowed in school meals, among other restrictions.
Many operators will simply not be able to find or afford products that meet the new standards, according to the SNA.
“With no end in sight to supply chain and labor challenges, most school meal programs nationwide simply lack the capacity to meet these proposed nutrition mandates and exceed transitional standards,” the SNA wrote.
The SNA submitted these thoughts, among others, to the USDA during the open comment period for the proposed changes. (The public originally had until April 10 to share feedback on the updates, but the USDA has since extended the comment period until May 10.)
A recent survey of school nutrition operators conducted by the SNA found that 89% are having trouble obtaining items that meet current nutrition standards put forth by the USDA, such as whole-grain, low-sodium and low-fat products.
The SNA also submitted changes that it would prefer to the proposed rules. The association recommended the USDA maintain the Target 1A sodium limits that go into effect this July and research how even stricter sodium restrictions would impact menu planning, meal participation and students’ health before proposing future reductions.
In addition, the SNA says the USDA should allow meats or meat alternates to be served in place of the grain component at breakfast a maximum of three times a week, which would have the effect of reducing sugar in school meals.
It also asked that the USDA maintain the current whole-grain requirement, which mandates that least 80 percent of the weekly grains offered at school are whole grain-rich, and also extend the waiver that protects nutrition programs from financial penalty if supply chain challenges prevent them from meeting whole-grain or Target 1A sodium rules.
The proposed changes have been met with scrutiny by K-12 operators, who feel that the changes will make it harder to feed kids. Some operators also wished the proposal included ways to increase meal access, such as allowing schools to serve free school meals to all students, regardless of family income.