School Food Standards: The Shakeup Continues

kids munching on sandwiches at a school dining room

The USDA extends flexibility on rules pertaining to sodium, milk and whole grains.

The United States Department of Agriculture has taken another step toward relaxing school lunch and breakfast nutritional standards. Changes effective Dec. 6 reinforce changes first initiated in 2017 that  were part of a controversial, ongoing effort to give schools more flexibility and decision-making power.

Plans to make changes to the 2010 Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act emerged in a federal spending bill early in President Donald Trump’s term. At the time, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue rolled out proposals he promoted as a way to “Make School Meals Great Again.”

How the new rules play out

The guidelines now in place have a big impact in three areas: sodium content, milkfat and whole grains. Here’s a closer look:

Sodium content. Sodium levels will be allowed to remain at 1,230 mg. for K-5 school lunches; 1,360 for grades 6-8; and 1,420 for grades 9-12. That’s the level affixed to Target 1 plans in a tiered effort to reduce sodium consumed by children. Schools now have until the 2024-25 school year to implement the Target 2 amount of 935-1,035-1,080 mg., respectively. Plans to implement an even lower Target 3 level have been scrapped entirely. Federal dietary guidelines call for a 2,300 mg. daily limit. 

Low-fat milk. Schools can now offer 1% milkfat in flavored milks, including strawberry and chocolate. Rules in the original plan called for flavored milks to be only fat-free. In 2017, states were given the ability to grant schools special exemptions for serving flavored milk. 

Whole grains. Only half of the grains products used in menus need to be whole-grain rich. To qualify as whole grain, foods must contain 100 percent whole grain or a blend of whole-grain meal and/or flour and enriched meal and/or flour of which at least 50 percent is whole grain. The new rules no longer require schools to get waivers after demonstrating hardship, including financial difficulty, in procuring specific whole-grain products. This makes room for more enriched white flour pasta, tortillas, pizzas and other breads on the menu.

Concerns and explanations

Just as when changes were initiated in 2017, the new round of changes worries health advocates and those who support the original intent of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act. Others, including the School Nutrition Association (SNA) offer praise.

The standards previously in place were enacted by former President Barack Obama’s administration--the first changes to the public school lunch program in three decades--and took aim at many nutritional requirements in an attempt to reduce childhood obesity and the risk of Type 2 diabetes. 

Reducing sodium in food, lowering the consumption of sugary flavored milks, and increasing the use of whole grains were a big part of the program. The rules were championed by former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move anti-obesity initiative.
Margo Wootan, Vice President of Nutrition for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, expressed frustration with the changes. “This will mean that school lunches will fail to be consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, as is required by law,” she said in a written statement.

The School Nutrition Association (SNA) applauded the changes, citing it as a potential cure for the drop-off in school meal participation. “School nutrition professionals have made tremendous progress in improving student diets, but the pace and degree of menu changes under updated nutrition standards were more than some students would accept,” SNA President Gay Anderson said in a press release.

Perdue has countered by critics by noting the USDA intends to work on long-term solutions to school food standards. “We will continue to listen to schools, and make common-sense changes as needed, to ensure they can meet the needs of their students based on their real-world experience in local communities,” he said in a statement.

“If kids aren’t eating the food, and it’s ending up in the trash, they aren’t getting any nutrition,” Perdue said.

The quest: making changes to the menu

With relaxed regulations in place, the question for schools is “What do I do next?” After all, bid season has arrived for school foodservice directors.

Foodservice directors should review their bid specifications to incorporate any changes with regard to the sodium and milk changes prior to solicitation, urges Gordon Food Service Bid Department Manager Jon Fillmore. 

Schools can add different items or switch out items no matter what time of year, Gordon Food Service Bid Process Coordinator Randi Saukas said. One big consideration is whether products will be available to meet the relaxed standards after manufacturers have spent several years adjusting products to where they expected them to be for the upcoming year.

“There was a big shift when the switch was made to whole-grain because the items weren’t being produced so we had to source them,” Saukas pointed out. “Now, I think it really depends on how manufacturers are able to make changes to their items.”

Gordon Food Service can always provide options, she notes, but it’s unlikely that schools would be able to flip back to what they were buying years ago because those formulations have been changed at the manufacturer level. If foodservice directors choose to go off bid and select items, they may not get bid pricing. 

“Schools we work with can contact their Customer Development Specialist or Education Specialist to see if there are products that fall within the new standards,” Saukas says. “But it all depends on what the manufacturers are producing and how they are going forward with this change.”