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USDA announces stricter standards for school nutrition

The administration is tightening rules for fat and salt after restrictions were eased during pandemic.

A student holds a milk carton during lunch at a school in Georgia. (Sean Rayford for The Washington Post)

The Department of Agriculture announced Friday it is making changes to its school nutrition standards for the 2022-2023 school year, seeking to reinstate health goals that were rolled back during the Trump administration.

The Biden administration will make schools and child-care providers offer low-fat or nonfat unflavored milks, and limit the fat in sweet flavored milks, among other things. At least 80 percent of the grains served in school lunch and breakfast each week must be considered rich in whole grains, under the new policies. And while the weekly sodium limit for school lunch and breakfast will remain at the current level, there will be a 10 percent decrease required for the 2023-2024 school year.

These adjustments would mark a change from the direction that the Trump administration took when it came to nutrition standards at schools. Trump aides had rolled back rules, initially easing policies regarding whole grain, nonfat milk and sodium, citing food waste and nonparticipation as key rationales.

Then the pandemic happened, forcing school administrators to scramble with complicated feeding schedules and logistics, as well as labor and food shortages. The USDA granted lots of extra flexibilities, repeatedly propping up the program financially and easing some guidelines.

Most states have not even applied to this free school meal program

USDA Deputy Under Secretary Stacy Dean told reporters Thursday the pandemic has highlighted the essential role that school meals play in combating hunger and getting vital nutrition to the more than 30 million children who rely on these programs every day.

About two-thirds of that 30 million qualify as low-income and are getting meals free or for a reduced price. Children from low-income households are disproportionately affected by obesity and are less likely to be fed healthy meals at home, so the nutritional makeup of those school meals is impactful. Kids can get more than half of their daily calories from school meals.

A number of studies show that childhood obesity numbers have skyrocketed during the pandemic, with many American youths spending the year of remote learning being more sedentary and anxiety-snacking.

Dean said the USDA is issuing a final rule establishing transitional nutrition standards for three specific areas in flux over the past few years “to give schools clear expectations for gradual transition from current pandemic operations to more nutritious meals.”

The Biden administration changes are largely a return to Obama-era nutrition standards established in 2012, which a USDA nutrition study found to have a dramatic effect on diet quality. For the 2009-2010 school year, the Healthy Eating Index for breakfast was nearly 50 out of 100, rising to over 71 by the 2014-2015 school year. In that same time frame, the lunch score went from nearly 58 to above 81.

Why is the government downplaying this school nutrition program?

Some advocates say the new announcement doesn’t go far enough. All other nutrition standards, including fruit and vegetable requirements, will remain the same as the 2012 standards with this change, with no mention of limiting added sugars. Still, some experts wonder if the changes will place too high a burden on already taxed nutrition programs.

The School Nutrition Association, the trade group for school-food-service manufacturers and professionals, is urging Congress to provide additional support by authorizing child nutrition waiver extensions through the coming school year. While the group applauded the release of transitional nutrition standards, according to association president Beth Wallace, “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.”

According to Geri Henchy, director of nutrition policy at the Food Research and Action Center, this is a balancing act. “This approach is really going to help move forward the nutrition of the meals and allows the schools to continue to function effectively,” she said. “Schools can’t make big changes at this point because of the supply chain and staffing. 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 has been asking stakeholders for months what this should look like to accomplish the dual goals of getting school nutrition programs back on track with meal standards while helping schools move through and out of the pandemic with reasonable standards that include the realization that the supply chain disruptions are far from over, said Katie Wilson, executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance, a nonprofit created by school-food-service professionals.

“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, the USDA is willing to be more gradual about strengthening standards as we move forward,” Wilson said. She said even the fairly slow rollout of stricter sodium standards allows schools to adjust, especially because they’ve had to rely on packaged foods that often have more salt during the pandemic.

How the government is urging the industry to curb salt consumption

One of the Food and Drug Administration’s signature efforts to improve the nation’s nutrition is focused on reducing the level of sodium in the food supply. The FDA took a critical step to help reduce sodium through recent guidance that establishes voluntary sodium reduction targets in processed, packaged and prepared foods. According to acting FDA commissioner Janet Woodcock, the USDA rule provides transitional standards for school meals to move toward more nutritious meals, including ones lower in sodium.

“This type of all-of-government coordination is also necessary to help reverse the course of diet-related chronic diseases and the disproportionate burden experienced by racial and ethnic minority groups,” Woodcock and Susan Mayne, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, wrote in a statement.