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New School Lunch Rules Will Change Menus. (Chocolate Milk Still Allowed)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture unveiled final nutrition standards for school meals Wednesday that include a new, gradual limit on added sugars.

The rules also include a sodium reduction that is smaller than the agency originally proposed as the result of a congressional tweak—the latest chapter in a long and often political fight over what goes on kids’ lunch trays.

The rules are the final version of a draft the agency first proposed in February 2023. They include several revisions in response to 136,000 written public comments and and more than 50 listening sessions held with state officials, districts, industry groups, and advocacy organizations, the Agriculture Department said.

“The new standards build on the great progress that school meals have made already and address remaining challenges—including reducing sugar in school breakfasts,” said a statement from Cindy Long, the agency’s food and nutrition service administrator.

What’s in the new rules:

  • A first-of-its-kind limit on added sugars will apply to cereals, yogurt, and milk starting in the fall of 2025. It will expand to an overall limit, in which added sugars must make up less than 10 percent of total calories in a week’s meals by the fall of 2027. The limits are a response to concerns that breakfast foods in particular rely heavily on added sugar, the USDA said.
  • Heightened restrictions that will take effect in fall 2027 will reduce sodium levels in breakfasts by 10 percent and in lunches by 15 percent. The original proposal would have gradually introduced further reductions, cutting 20 percent of sodium in breakfasts and 30 percent in lunches, but the agency’s ability to act was limited by a rider Congress included in a March spending bill that funded federal agencies.
  • Schools can continue to serve flavored milks as long as they comply with sugar limits. Dairy producers who collectively sell about 90 percent of milk served in schools have agreed to sell products that comply, USDA said. Proposals to ban sale of chocolate milk stirred consternation among some members of Congress.

The new rules are designed to align with the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, federal recommendations updated every five years by USDA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to match the latest nutrition research.

About 30 million students eat meals through the school lunch program on a typical school day, so the requirements can have broad effects on children’s health.

Support from advocates and industry groups

The last major round of reforms to school meals, under the Obama administration, aimed to dial up vegetables and whole grains and reduce fat and salt in meals, but led to intensive lobbying from food organizations, as well as nutrition directors who found some of the requirements onerous.

The new rules were met Wednesday with measured support from both children’s health advocates who favor heightened nutrition requirements and organizations that represent school district officials who have been concerned about the logistical challenges of meeting them in the past.

“Strong nutrition standards are critical in efforts to improve nutrition security and health equity, while also reducing diet-related chronic disease,” said a statement from Nancy Brown, chief executive of the American Heart Association.

The organization would have liked to see requirements to serve additional whole grains, Brown said. School nutrition directors have complained about difficulty procuring products like pastas that contain whole-grain ingredients.

School districts have complained of logistical struggles in meeting nutrition regulations, like obtaining supplies, keeping production costs down, offering foods students want to eat, and reducing food waste.

The new rules are “not perfect,” said David R. Schuler, executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association, but they represent “a reasonable and achievable path forward.”

“For years, AASA has been sounding the alarm that when nutrition standards go too far, the result is meals that students are not willing to consume, undermining the entire purpose of the program—to feed students and ensure they are ready to learn,” he said.

School Nutrition Association President Chris Derico praised the new rules as “more attainable, long-term nutrition goals that acknowledge the tremendous challenges schools face when working to adjust menus and gain student acceptance of healthier meals.”

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