Groups react to USDA school meals transition
After the Agriculture Department on Friday announced a final rule to move schools back to the higher quality pre-pandemic standards for school meals that were in the 2010 Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act, but give schools time to transition from current pandemic operations, various groups provided nuanced reactions conveying what they think is important about the rule.
The new final rule — Child Nutrition Programs: Transitional Standards for Milk, Whole Grains, and Sodium — was published in the Federal Register today.
USDA said the transitional standards will begin in school year 2022-2023 and continue through 2023-2024, adding that it is also planning for the future by engaging with stakeholders to establish long-term nutrition standards beginning in 2024-2025 that it says “will be achievable and put children’s health at the forefront.”
The new final rule establishes the following requirements:
▪ Milk: Schools and child care providers serving participants ages 6 and older may offer flavored low-fat (1%) milk in addition to nonfat flavored milk and nonfat or low-fat unflavored milk;
▪ Whole grains: At least 80% of the grains served in school lunch and breakfast each week must be whole grain-rich; and
▪ Sodium: The weekly sodium limit for school lunch and breakfast will remain at the current level in 2022-2023. For school lunch only, there will be a 10% decrease in the limit in 2023-2024. This aligns with the U.S Food and Drug Administration’s recently released guidance that establishes voluntary sodium reduction targets for processed, packaged, and prepared foods in the U.S..
▪ All other nutrition standards, including fruit and vegetable requirements, will remain the same as the 2012 standards.
USDA noted it is required to update the standards based on recommendations from the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
“In doing so, USDA will prioritize seeking input from schools, industry and others to inform the process,” USDA said, adding that it expects to finalize that rule in time for schools to plan for 2024-2025.
Center for Science in the Public Interest Deputy Director of Federal Affairs Colin Schwartz said the rule “provides schools and the school food industry short-term flexibility over the next two school years to weather the pandemic.”
“In particular, the rule provides flexibility on sodium and whole grains, which have posed more challenges than other standards, and allows more sugary milk in schools. The rule requires schools that offer flavored milk to also offer unflavored milk; flavored milk is the top source of added sugars in schools according to a study co-authored by CSPI.
“The USDA changed the requirement that schools provide foods that are at least 51% whole grain from five to four school days during the week and changed the baseline for sodium reduction by 10% for lunch next school year. That reduction aligns with the Food and Drug Administration’s recently released voluntary sodium-reduction targets for the food industry, which were in part the result of a CSPI petition and lawsuit.”
CSPI noted that the Trump administration attempted to weaken the Obama-era standards, but that rule was overturned by a federal court in 2020.
Schwartz said CSPI is “disappointed” that the rule removes targets for stricter sodium reduction, but he added, “the rule does specify that the USDA will develop long-term standards and we urge the Biden administration to expeditiously honor that commitment so that school meals can be aligned with the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans in a timely manner.”
“As a practical matter, this rule is best understood as a temporary bridge. This final rule was needed as the pandemic waivers are lifted this summer, and we expect that the USDA will issue regulations that harmonize the school meal nutrition standards with the most recent edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, as required by law.
“That rule will mean that sodium and whole grain standards be put back on track for the long-term, and that a new standard for added sugars be issued for the first time.”
The School Nutrition Association, which represents school food service directors and the companies that make school foods, praised USDA for “recognizing tremendous challenges facing school meals programs” in releasing the transitional rule, but also noted the group is urging Congress “to provide additional support by authorizing child nutrition waiver extensions through SY 2022-23 to address immediate supply chain issues, higher costs and the need to maintain pandemic safety measures.”
“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,” said School Nutrition Association President Beth Wallace.
“We greatly appreciate USDA addressing regulatory requirements and look forward to further collaboration with the department to assess the viability of nutrition standards moving forward,” Wallace said.
“With school nutrition professionals already planning menus and placing orders for the fall, we also urgently require Congress’ approval of waiver extensions to ensure all students continue to benefit from healthy school meals.”
Katie Wilson, an Obama administration USDA official who is now the executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance, which represents 15 of the largest school districts in the country, said, “I think this bridge rule is right on target for what we are experiencing right now — we must continue to try to meet nutrition standards — the flavored 1% milk is what kids are willing to drink — schools still have to make it work within calorie levels — so it will be considered within the weeks nutritional analysis.”
“Whole grain RICH is the key — it was never 100% whole grain as some people tried to say — it was always whole grain rich — 51% whole grain and 49% enriched in the product — this makes sense — and yes, getting to 80% with the supply chain issues is reasonable,” Wilson said.
“Many manufacturers have told me that the whole grain rich issue has left the station — that is the norm for breaded products and pasta so they are not going backwards. Too much was spent in R&D and many of the products are also in the commercial marketplace.
“As far as sodium — we were supposed to be at Target 2 — I applaud USDA for working through this very hyped-up issue. Doing a reset at Target 1 and moving forward slowly is exactly how we should do this. It gives people time to readjust — time for technical assistance and time for the supply chain to catch up — many of our schools are getting commercial product throughout the pandemic because it is all they could get — so this is really a good decision by USDA — they listened and now are moving forward.
“They are alerting schools that lunch menus need to readjust to 10% lower than Target 1 by 2023 — that is doable — most were already at Target 2. We cannot continue to deny that sodium is a problem in our diets — this gradual approach makes it more reasonable to obtain.
“I think the message is very clear — we are using federal funds for these programs and it is imperative that we continue to make the meals healthier but due to circumstances out of our control the last two years. USDA is willing to be more gradual about strengthening standards as we move forward. I am all in on this.”
American Heart Association President Donald Lloyd-Jones said, “This new rule will help bring stability to schools as they continue to operate in an uncertain environment and put healthier foods back on the menu.”
“By clarifying the standards for sodium, whole grains and milk for the next two school years, this rule brings the meal standards closer to the strong, evidence-based standards that were adopted in 2012; however, closer will not ultimately be enough,” Lloyd-Jones said.
“These standards must be temporary and serve as a bridge to stronger nutrition standards based on the latest nutrition science.
“We support USDA’s plan to issue a new science-based proposal this fall that would align the school meal nutrition standards with the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Those new standards, which would take effect for school year 2024-2025, should require schools to offer a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and more whole grains, which are key components of a healthy diet.
“The new standards must also limit the amount of saturated fat and sodium, including moving forward with the sodium targets contained in the 2012 rule and developing a fourth sodium target that further lowers sodium consumption in younger children.
“We also continue to urge USDA to limit the amount of added sugars. Added sugars are a significant source of excess calories in children’s diets and provide no nutritional value, yet there is currently no limit on the amount of added sugars school meals can contain.
“That is why we recently joined the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the American Public Health Association in a citizen petition asking USDA to adopt an added sugars standard. The creation of an added sugars standard would have a tremendous impact on children’s health,” Lloyd-Jones said.
International Dairy Foods Association President and CEO Michael Dykes said the rule “clears up several years of confusion and takes a positive step toward restoring more varieties of milk to the school meals program”
“The final rule allows schools to continue to serve milk that students prefer to drink while remaining consistent with the Dietary Guidelines. The rule gives clarity to school meals professionals and food makers as they plan ahead amid supply chain challenges, and it will improve students’ access to dairy products, particularly milk and its 13 essential nutrients, and cheese as a nutrient-rich protein alternate,” Dykes said.
“Today’s announcement helps to encourage school meal participation by maintaining a wider variety of milk offerings that kids enjoy. Milk is a major source of calcium, potassium, phosphorus, and vitamin D in the diets of children 2-18 years of age.
“Yet for years, schools have been burdened with regulations that hamper their ability to provide children with nutrient-dense dairy products. First, whole milk disappeared; then 2%; and then finally 1% flavored milk, which kids prefer compared to non-fat flavored milk. On top of that, schools have more recently had to plan for overly stringent sodium targets that would effectively remove cheese from the menu since sodium is necessary in cheesemaking,” Dykes said.
Food Research & Action Center President Luis Guardia said the announcement shows USDA “will embark on a multi-step process to update school nutrition standards.”
“Now, at least 80% of grains — such as breads and cereals – served for school breakfast and lunch will be whole grain, as opposed to only half the servings,”Guardia said. “There also will be a small but important decrease in sodium in the second year of the bridge rule. Schools offering flavored milk must also offer unflavored milk.”
He added, “The bridge rule will allow USDA the time needed for a comprehensive public engagement and regulatory process toward a permanent and complete update of the nutrition standards.
“FRAC also is pleased that USDA announced a new initiative designed to solicit stakeholder input to help inform the new updated evidence-based school nutrition standards,” Guardia said.
“FRAC will lead efforts to bring the voices of parents, children and community leaders into this information gathering process. This will be a critical time for key stakeholders across the country and we must ensure that racial equity is at the crux of our work during this process.”
House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Chairman Robert “Bobby” Scott, D-Va., said, “I am pleased that the Biden-Harris administration is continuing to provide flexibility for school meal nutrition standards as schools and families across the country confront the recent rise in COVID-19 infections. We look forward to working with the Administration to restore the full, evidence-based nutrition standards that our children need to grow healthy.”
“Throughout the pandemic, school meal programs have faced steep obstacles to serving students and families —from challenges to safely delivering food during school closures to securing the supplies and ingredients that school meal staff need,” Scott said.
“That is why Congress must build on the critical support for child nutrition programs that we enacted in the American Rescue Plan. I am focused on securing the critical investments included in the House-passed Build Back Better Act and advancing a comprehensive reauthorization of federal child nutrition programs.”
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