USDA Announces Stricter Standards for School Nutrition

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Feb. 7, 2022 -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced new changes to school nutrition standards for the next 2 school years, which will reinstate health goals that were rolled back during the Trump administration.

The Biden administration is also tightening rules for fat and salt content in foods after restrictions were eased during the pandemic, according to The Washington Post.

“Nutritious school meals give America’s children the foundation for successful, healthy lives,” Tom Vilsack, the U.S. agriculture secretary, said in a statement on Friday.

“We applaud schools’ heroic efforts throughout the challenges of this pandemic to continue serving kids the most nutritious meals possible,” he said. “The standards we’re putting in place of the next 2 school years will help schools transition to a future that builds on the tremendous strides they’ve made improving school meal nutrition over the past decade.”

For the 2022-2023 school year, schools and childcare providers will be required to offer low-fat or nonfat unflavored milks and limit the fat in sweet flavored milks. In addition, at least 80% of the grains served during school breakfasts and lunches each week must be considered rich in whole grains.

For the 2023-2024 school year, the weekly sodium limit for school lunches will be decreased by 10%.

The changes mark a shift from the Trump administration, which eased policies on whole grains, nonfat milk, and sodium, the newspaper reported. Then the pandemic forced additional changes as school districts scrambled to package meals for students. The USDA granted extra flexibility and eased some guidelines to ensure that children could be fed while schools were closed or focused on remote learning.

Now the USDA is updating the nutrition standards to “give schools clear expectations for gradual transition from current pandemic operations to more nutritious meals,” Stacy Dean, the USDA’s deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, told reporters last week.

The Biden administration’s changes represent a shift back to Obama-era nutrition standards from 2012, according to the Post. But some nutrition advocates have said the new changes don’t address enough issues, such as added sugars. Fruit and vegetable requirements, for instance, will remain the same as the 2012 standards.

That said, some advocates have said the transition could be tough as schools move out of pandemic-era protocols. The School Nutrition Association, which represents school food service manufacturers and professionals, has urged Congress to provide additional support and waiver extensions for the next school year.

“School nutrition professionals are frantic just trying to get enough food on the tray for our students amid relentless supply chain disruptions and labor shortages,” Beth Wallace, the association’s president, told the newspaper.

The shift will likely require a balancing act and slow transition. The USDA has been consulting with stakeholders for months to determine how to move toward stricter school nutrition standards while also acknowledging the pandemic, supply chain disruptions, and labor shortages.

“This approach is really going to help move forward the nutrition of the meals and allows the schools to continue to function effectively,” Geri Henchy, director of nutrition policy at the Food Research and Action Center, told the Post.

“Schools can’t make big changes at this point because of the supply chain and staffing,” she said. “They have a lot of waivers at this point that are helping them, and this balances the needs of all the different sectors.”

The USDA plans to issue a proposed rule in fall 2022 to update nutrition standards for the future, the department said in its announcement, which would be finalized for the 2024-2025 school year.

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