USDA works towards healthier school meals but a school nutrition group has concerns

The USDA is working towards offering healthier meals for children at school, by lowering added sugar and sodium to food products.

brown bag lunch usda photo.jpg
The school lunches will have lower added sugar and sodium.
Contributed / USDA

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced steps it plans to take to improve children's health through nutritious school meals. However, a group that represents school nutrition professionals across the country has urged USDA to leave the standards as-is.

The USDA shared that they are proposing changes to school meals due to the change of dietary standards. The meals will limit added sugar in some high-sugar products, reducing the weekly limit of sodium in meals and focus on offering whole-grain meals.

Stacy Dean, USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, is pleased with the current state of school meals, but says USDA is always looking for ways to help with the overall health of children.

“They already offer incredibly healthy meals aligned with the dietary guidelines, but under federal law we’re supposed to keep those updated to the latest dietary guidelines. So that’s what we’re seeking to do here, make some very modest changes to the program to just keep it modern and up to date with the latest nutrition science,” Dean said.

According to Dean, the benefits of school meals are undeniable. They help provide healthy and nutritious meals to 30 million children for lunch and 15 million children for breakfast. Those school meals also provide food security for America’s youth as well.


“Our commitment to the school meal programs comes from a common goal we all share — keeping kids healthy and helping them reach their full potential,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in a USDA news release. “Many children aren’t getting the nutrition they need, and diet-related diseases are on the rise. Research shows school meals are the healthiest meals in a day for most kids, proving that they are an important tool for giving kids access to the nutrition they need for a bright future. We must all step up to support child health if we are to achieve the Biden-Harris Administration's goal of ending hunger and reducing diet-related diseases by 2030, in accordance with the National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition and Health. Strengthening school meals is one of the best ways we can achieve that goal.”

However, the nonprofit School Nutrition Association in early February urged USDA to maintain current school nutrition standards, saying the newly proposed rules are "unachievable for most schools nationwide."

Research  shows students receive their healthiest meals at school, thanks to current nutrition standards,” said SNA President Lori Adkins said in a statement. “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.”

SNA surveyed school nutrition directors and found that the vast majority are concerned about sourcing foods that meet the requirements. Breakfast foods meeting the new sugar limits would be the hardest to find, SNA said.

“We see children choose not to eat at all if a meal is not familiar or appetizing to them, and it’s heartbreaking, particularly for food insecure families who rely on school meals,” said Adkins. ”School nutrition staff work tirelessly to keep students choosing and consuming healthy school meals; we must continue to support those efforts.”

A focus point for the USDA initiative is supporting rural schools and communities that may not have the resources or equipment needed. According to Dean, the USDA is very attentive to the needs of rural communities and knows they may have a harder time adapting due to logistics or other factors. To her, that’s why it was important to have specific grants to help rural schools and communities that may not have as many resources or people in the school dietary workforce.

Emily grew up on a small grains and goat farm in southern Ohio. After graduating from The Ohio State University, she moved to Fargo, North Dakota to pursue a career in ag journalism with Agweek. She enjoys reporting on livestock and local agricultural businesses.
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