WASHINGTON, DC – The US Department of Agriculture has announced steps it intends to take to improve children’s health through nutritious school meals. However, a group representing school nutrition professionals across the country has urged the USDA to leave the standards as they are.
The USDA said it is proposing changes to school meals due to the change in nutritional standards. Meals will limit added sugars in some high-sugar items, reduce the weekly sodium limit in meals, and focus on offering whole grains.
Stacy Dean, the USDA’s assistant undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, is pleased with the current status of school meals, but says the USDA is always looking for ways to contribute to children’s overall health.
“They already offer incredibly healthy meals that align with dietary guidelines, but federal law requires us to update them to the latest dietary guidelines. So that’s what we’re trying to do here, make some very modest changes to the program to just keep it modern and on the cutting edge of nutritional science,” Dean said.
According to Dean, the benefits of school meals are undeniable. You help provide healthy and nutritious meals for 30 million children at lunchtime and 15 million children at breakfast. These school meals also provide food security for America’s youth.
“Our commitment to the school feeding programs stems from a common goal we all share — keeping children healthy and helping them reach their full potential,” US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in a USDA news release. “Many children are not getting the nutrition they need and diet-related diseases are on the rise. Research shows that school meals are the healthiest meals of the day for most children, proving that they are an important tool in giving children access to the nutrition they need for a bright future. We must all be committed to children’s health if we are to meet the Biden-Harris administration’s goal of ending hunger and reducing diet-related diseases by 2030, as per the National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition and Health. Strengthening school meals is one of the best ways to achieve this goal.”
However, the nonprofit School Nutrition Association urged the USDA to maintain current school nutrition standards in early February, saying the newly proposed rules are “out of reach of most schools across the country.”
“Research shows that current nutritional standards mean that students are getting the healthiest meals at school,” SNA President Lori Adkins said in a statement. “As schools across the country grapple with ongoing supply chain, labor and financial challenges, school lunch programs are struggling to successfully maintain current standards and need support, not additional, unrealistic demands.”
SNA surveyed school nutrition directors and found that the vast majority are concerned about sourcing food that meets requirements. Breakfast foods that meet the new sugar limits would be the hardest to find, SNA said.
“We see children choosing not to eat at all when a meal is unfamiliar or appetizing to them, and it’s heartbreaking, especially for families with food insecurity who depend on school meals,” Adkins said. “The school nutrition staff work tirelessly to ensure students select and consume healthy school meals; we must continue to support these efforts.”
A focus of the USDA initiative is to support 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 understands that it may be more difficult to accommodate due to logistics or other factors. Because of this, it was important to her to have special grants to help rural schools and communities that may not have as many resources or people in the school nutrition department.
Emily grew up on a small grain and goat farm in southern Ohio. After graduating from Ohio State University, she relocated to Fargo, North Dakota to pursue a career in agricultural journalism at Agweek. She enjoys reporting on livestock and local farms.