American schoolchildren could be getting school lunches that have less sugar and salt in the future, thanks to new nutrition standards announced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Friday.
These are the first school lunch program updates since 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
What’s different this time is a limit on added sugars, starting in the 2025-2026 school year. Limits would at first target high-sugar foods, including sweetened cereals, yogurts and flavored milks.
By fall 2027, added sugars must be less than 10% of total calories a week for school breakfasts and lunches. Sugary grain foods like muffins or doughnuts can’t be served more than twice a week at breakfast.
Another example is that an 8-ounce container of chocolate milk must contain no more than 10 grams of sugar under the revised rules. Some popular flavored milks contain twice that amount.
"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," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in an agency news release.
Vilsack said the agency's goal is to get school guidelines to align with U.S. dietary guidelines for the nearly 30 million children who eat lunch at school and the 15 million who have breakfast there.
The American Heart Association applauded the move.
"By proposing to limit the amount of added sugars in school meals for the first time ever, the USDA is taking a major step toward helping children achieve a more nutritious diet and better health," the AHA said in a statement. "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."
But sugar won't be the only thing targeted in the updated rules.
Sodium would be capped to stay in alignment with recommendations that kids 14 and up have less than 2,300 milligrams per day. The recommended limits are less for younger children. Sodium content would be reduced in school meals by 30% by fall 2029.
Here is a summary of the proposed rules:
High school student lunches now average about 1,280 milligrams of sodium, and that would drop to 935 milligrams.
"More than 90% of children consume too much sodium, and taste preferences -- including those for salty food -- begin early in life," the AHA said. "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."
A 60-day public comment period on the 280-page plan starts Feb. 7.
Not everyone thinks the changes are the answer.
“School meal programs are at a breaking point,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the trade group School Nutrition Association, told the Associated Press. “These programs are simply not equipped to meet additional rules."
Courtney Gaine, president of the Sugar Association, expressed concern about the use of sugar substitutes and said the proposal ignores the "many functional roles" sugar plays in food.
But Katie Wilson, executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance, told the AP that the changes are "necessary to help America’s children lead healthier lives."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on healthy nutrition.
SOURCES: U.S. Department of Agriculture, news release, Feb. 3, 2023; Associated Press