USDA plans to restrict sugar, sodium, non-whole grains in school meals |

USDA plans to restrict sugar, sodium, non-whole grains in school meals

Courtesy USDA Food and Nutrition Service
The Agriculture Department’s Food and Nutrition Service today will publish a proposed rule in the Federal Register to restrict sugar, sodium and non-whole grains in school meals and make other changes to the program.
The proposed rule will be open for comment until Monday, April 10.
On a Facebook live “Conversation on Healthy School Meals Roundtable” on Friday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said USDA will take “a gradual, multiyear approach,” but that the new standards would include:
▪ “Limiting added sugars in certain high-sugar products and, later, across the weekly menu;
▪ Allowing flavored milk in certain circumstances and with reasonable limits on added sugars;
▪ Incrementally reducing weekly sodium limits over many school years; and
▪ Emphasizing products that are primarily whole grain, with the option for occasional non-whole grain products.”
“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 Vilsack.
“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.”
Vilsack also noted, “By law, USDA is required to set standards for the foods and beverages served through the school meal programs, including nutrition standards that align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”
A spokesperson for the Healthy Eating Research, a national program office of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said the proposed standards “would take a gradual and incremental approach to more closely (but not fully) align school meals with the DGA.”
The Healthy Eating Research program also released a study that said “strong nutrition standards for school meals would benefit students by improving their nutrition and health, food security, and academic performance and would benefit schools by boosting meal participation and food service revenue.” 
Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., the ranking member on the Senate Agriculture Committee, and House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairwoman Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., said in a joint statement, “We will review this proposal and talk with the stakeholders who make this program run to understand what works and what does not.”
“Claiming to be science-based doesn’t mean USDA can put unworkable standards in place that make it harder for local school personnel to feed kids,” they said.
“Claiming to have solicited feedback does not mean USDA can ignore what works for schools and families to ensure kids will eat the meals. Claiming to be flexible does not mean USDA can add requirements that drive up costs for schools and families.”
Rep. Robert “Bobby” Scott, D-Va., the ranking member on the Education and Workforce Committee, said he was pleased with the proposal.
“Updating these standards will bring us one step closer to eliminating child malnutrition and the gaps in access to healthy food,” Scott said.
“In Congress, I hope my colleagues on both sides of the aisle can come together to build on the critical support for nutrition programs that we passed in the American Rescue Plan as well as advance a comprehensive reauthorization of federal child nutrition programs.”
The School Nutrition Association, which represents school food service directors and the companies that make school foods, said USDA should “maintain current school nutrition standards rather than implement newly proposed rules that are unachievable for most schools nationwide.”
”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 SNA president Lori Adkins. “School nutrition staff work tirelessly to keep students choosing and consuming healthy school meals; we must continue to support those efforts.”
SNA has opposed many of the stricter nutrition standards since they were first introduced under the 2010 Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act. SNA noted that its members will come to Washington in March to talk to members of Congress about the proposed standards.
Courtney Gaine, president and CEO of The Sugar Association, the scientific voice of the U.S. sugar industry, said, “As USDA undertakes its rulemaking for school meals with a focus on obesity reduction, it is important to note that added sugars consumption has actually declined by more than 30% since 2000 while child obesity is up by 45%.”
“The Sugar Association supports the alignment of school meals with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to provide healthier nutrition for all of America’s children, and we are pleased to see that the USDA proposes applying the less than 10% of calories from added sugars target to the week’s menus as the DGAs are intended to serve as a guide for overall diet planning, not as an inflexible formula for specific menu items.
“However, the proposed rule’s limit on sugar in individual, highly nutritious, foods, such as yogurt and cereal, conflicts with the DGAs intended application across an entire diet. These product limits not only ignore the many functional roles that sugar plays in food beyond sweetness but will also lead to reduced consumption of important nutrients,” Gaine said.
But Center for Science in the Public Interest President Peter Lurie said in a news release, “Fortunately, our research into the foods and milks made for schools shows that there is an array of adequate products that already meet these improved nutrition standards.”
Lurie said the rule would “continue the historic progress of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act by, for the first time, limiting added sugars in school meals.”
“Despite a brief setback during the Trump administration — reversed by a judge after we sued — school meals have become better and better under the improvements required by that 2010 law,” Lurie said.
“The proposal isn’t perfect, though. While the USDA is capping added sugars as we petitioned it to do last year, the rule disappoints on sodium: while it’s a step in the right direction, it’s not enough to get to our destination.
“The USDA’s sodium reduction goals do not align with the Dietary Guidelines. We will need to continue to work with USDA, schools, and the food industry to reach sodium levels that are safer for kids.“
Nor does USDA’s proposal on whole grains align with the guidelines. USDA should have maintained the 100% whole grain-rich requirement; instead, the rule stops short at 80%, which could slow or reverse the progress schools and industry have made to provide more whole grain-rich products,” Lurie said.T
he Food Research & Action Center said the new standards “will make for a healthier school day.”
FRAC also noted that it had “led efforts to bring the voices of parents, children, and community leaders to the table during USDA’s information-gathering process and worked to ensure that racial equity was at the crux of our work. The new standards heed the call for a balanced, reasonable approach to improving the standards in a practical way.”
FRAC cited highlights from the new standards proposal:
▪ “Introduces added sugar limits for school breakfast and lunch, starting with sugar limits for breakfast cereals and yogurt, and limits on grain-based desserts, and eventually phasing in a limit on the total amount of added sugar in all meals and snacks,
▪ “Requires at least 80% of the weekly grains in the school lunch and breakfast menus to be whole grain-rich, and
▪ “Phases in a reduction in sodium in school meals, aligning closer to the FDA voluntary standards of lowering sodium levels.”

The American Heart Association praised the proposal for limiting the amount of added sugars in school meals for the first time.
“Added sugars are a significant source of excess calories, provide no nutritional value and may cause weight gain and increased risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other chronic health conditions,” the association said, noting that it had filed a citizen petition with the USDA calling for an added sugars standard in the school meals program.
The association also said, “The updated standards also would continue critical reductions of sodium in school meals. More than 90% of children consume too much sodium, and taste preferences — including those for salty food — begin early in life.”
“The new sodium reductions would be phased in over time to help schools make the transition, and the proposed limits would be achievable for schools and effectively lower sodium consumption. To help schools continue their sodium reduction efforts, we hope USDA will call for even greater sodium reductions in the future.
“We appreciate that the proposed standards continue to emphasize the importance of whole grains. While we would like to see USDA reinstate the 100% whole grain-rich requirement, the proposed standard would still encourage whole grain consumption while giving schools some flexibility when menu planning,” the Heart Association said.
The National Milk Producers Federation and the International Dairy Foods Association praised USDA’s plans to maintain low-fat flavored milk for students, but called for more milk and dairy options in school meals.
“Children having access to the healthful foods they need to grow and focus in school is a key priority for dairy farmers,” said Jim Mulhern, NMPF president and CEO.
“Milk is the top source of calcium, potassium, phosphorus, and vitamin D in kids ages 2-18, and 1% flavored milk is a nutrient-dense, low-fat option students will actually choose to drink.
“We are pleased USDA is maintaining low-fat flavored milk in schools, providing children with an additional, and favored, choice to access the 13 essential nutrients milk provides, including three of the four nutrients of public health concern.
“But we question why USDA would propose school meal options that could limit a child’s access to these nutrients and we urge instead that they expand access to dairy options. Providing low-fat flavored milk will increase students’ intake of nutrients vital for their growth and development.”
“The most recent Dietary Guidelines report is clear: children are not receiving enough essential nutrients for growth, development, healthy immune function, and overall wellness,” said Michael Dykes, IDFA president and CEO.
“Healthy milk and dairy options in school meals offer the most important opportunity of the day for children to get the critical nutrients they need. For years, parents and nutrition professionals have agreed that milk and dairy products must remain key building blocks in school meals. While we are pleased that this proposed rule continues to make dairy central to child nutrition, we are concerned with USDA’s ongoing efforts to propose limitations to milk and dairy in school meals, which run counter to the Dietary Guidelines and the mandate of America’s parents.”
Courtesy USDA Food and Nutrition Service
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