As the USDA attempts to reduce sodium in school meals, lobbying from Big Dairy ramps up, culminating in a pair of congressional riders that would reverse progress—at the expense of children's health.
USDA’s proposed changes to school meals
School lunch and breakfast programs feed some 30 million American children each year. Those meals, which many students qualify to receive either free or reduced in price , reduce the risk of food insufficiency and improve student attendance and test scores.
Earlier this year, the USDA proposed changes that would improve the nutritional quality of school meals, including the first-ever limit on added sugars and incremental sodium reduction goals—moves that would improve children’s health and reduce the overall risk to children of diabetes, weight gain, tooth decay, and cardiovascular disease. “We’re proposing these changes now to build in plenty of time for planning and collaboration with all of our school nutrition partners. USDA will continue to do all we can to support our partners’ success, because nothing could be more important than giving kids the best chance at a healthy future,” explained Deputy Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services Stacy Dean.
USDA sodium targets
Most children in the U.S. consume too much salt, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Currently, school lunches must not exceed USDA’s sodium Target 1a (< 1,280 mg for grades 9-12)—from lunch alone, more than 55 percent of a day’s recommended sodium limit. The incremental changes proposed by USDA would bring lunches down to < 935 mg, or just over 40 percent of a day’s sodium limit for this age group.
Though the USDA’s plan is a multi-year, incremental one, it seems the dairy industry is opposed to any changes that might limit cheese in school meals or require costly reformulation to reduce sodium.
Congressional ‘cheese riders’
What does this have to do with Congress? The House and Senate have to pass a spending bill that funds federal agencies—including the USDA. This year, both chambers have included “riders,” or carve-outs, in their spending bills that concede to Big Dairy’s demands—at the expense of children’s health.
The “cheese riders” require the USDA to develop a special exemption for the sodium in cheese used for “food safety and functional purposes” from the overall meal standards. This could mean a lot of the sodium in cheese could be excluded from sodium calculations in school meals, which is counterproductive to reaching sodium targets, since cheese is already one of the top sources of excess sodium in children’s diets. If the USDA doesn’t give cheese these special sodium limits, the rider prevents USDA from implementing future sodium limits for all school foods and could roll back current progress.
Reducing sodium in school meals is imperative
Revisions to child nutrition programs can have a big impact on children’s health—and industry. Following passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 and subsequent updates to school nutrition standards, the nutritional quality of school foods improved significantly, and researchers concluded that by 2017-2018, foods consumed in school were higher in nutritional quality than foods from grocery stores, worksites, and restaurants.
Manufacturers developed new products and reformulated existing K-12 products to fit the new guidelines; schools, and the food industry, can already serve plenty of different dairy products and meet stronger sodium limits.
According to a recent study modeling the impacts of strengthening school nutrition standards (on sodium, added sugars, and whole grains), updating the sodium limits has the largest potential health and economic impacts.
The dairy industry’s pushback is predictable
Every time there are changes sought to improve child nutrition programs, special interests lobby Congress to put their profits over children’s health (see: limitless French fries and counting pizza as a vegetable). If the dairy industry is allowed to dictate the nutritional standards of school meals, school kids won’t have access to healthier school meals, impacting healthy eating habits for life.
What you can do
Tell Congress to keep these special interests out of the bill to protect our health. As Congress works to pass its spending bill to fund the government for the next fiscal year by mid-November, the dairy industry is seeking to block critical improvements to the school meals program, which would adversely impact the health of roughly 30 million children. Big Dairy is trying to block sodium-reduction efforts in its cheese products. Sign our petition and tell Congress to put our students’ health over the profits of Big Dairy.