Pear in mind: A blog in the public interest

Since the Covid-19 pandemic first shuttered schools in early 2020, schools have become embroiled in debate and uncertainty: whether students are masked or unmasked, in classrooms or e-learning, being taught the 1619 Project, or having books banned from their libraries. However, one thing remained a constant throughout the pandemic: the need for schools to provide healthy meals.  

Since early 2020, every student is eligible to receive a free breakfast and lunch at school thanks to Covid-19 child nutrition response waivers issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In a time of economic uncertainty for so many families, free school meals––specifically, free healthy school meals––are a lifeline, particularly as they face an end of the Child Tax Credit payments.

School meals are required by law to meet nutrition standards that were updated in 2012, but these standards have been contested by opponents and were even rolled back by the Trump Administration (the Center for Science in the Public Interest sued the USDA and won; the standards were reinstated in 2020). Further, the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the federal guidance for a healthy diet upon which federal nutrition programs rely on, lowered the amount of sodium that is considered safe for some children and reiterated its recommendation to limit added sugars to no more than 10 percent of calories (first introduced in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines).  

To understand whether companies provide products that meet science-based nutrition standards, CSPI created a School Meals Corporate Report Card, which analyzed the nutritional quality of nearly 1,800 K-12 products from 28 major manufacturers offered in School Year 2020-2021. The good news is, we found that companies could largely comply with science-based standards in the five areas assessed: whole grains, sodium, added sugars, artificial sweeteners, and synthetic dyes. We also found that companies that made some of the worst products offered better alternatives. School meals are far too salty and sugary, and more whole grains are needed. And certain artificial sweeteners are carcinogenic and synthetic dyes can impact behavior in susceptible children. 

For nearly two years now, schools have faced uncertainty. Flexibilities have been critical for getting through the pandemic and related supply chain disruptions. Now, it’s time for the USDA to provide certainty to industry, schools, and families by strengthening and protecting the school meal nutrition standards. We urge the USDA to maintain the 100 percent whole-grain-rich requirement, strengthen the sodium reduction targets and introduce an added sugars standard to align with the 2020 Dietary Guidelines, and introduce standards that eliminate artificial sweeteners and synthetic dyes.  

The School Meals Corporate Report Card demonstrates that the industry already offers products that can fit within these guidelines, but the USDA must set a clear path forward so R&D, menu planning, and training can begin in earnest. Luckily, the USDA has announced plans to strengthen the existing standards consistent with the 2020 Dietary Guidelines later this year and we’ll hold them to that. While the pandemic seems endless at times, we should take with us the importance of looking forward and planning ahead.