Take these 3 myths with a grain of salt

You may have heard the news that the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently proposed updated nutrition standards for school meals. For the first time, the USDA is proposing a limit on added sugars while also updating its goals for reducing sodium and promoting whole grain consumption. Unfortunately, opponents are circulating misconceptions to advocate against the proposed updates. These myths are not based on facts, and we want to set the record straight on three common ones.

Myth #1: Kids won’t eat healthier food, so food will just end up in the garbage. 

The Facts: Food waste is a real issue across our entire food system, not just in schools. Over one-third of all food in the U.S. is lost or wasted. So, while food waste in school cafeterias is a concern, the problem is not unique to schools nor is it the result of offering healthier school meals. 

In fact, after school meals became healthier over 10 years ago following passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, researchers found that students ate more nutritious foods and discarded less food than before. According to USDA data, schools serving healthier meals also had higher rates of students eating school lunch.  

If we want to address wasted school food (“plate waste”) and have students eat more of the food on their trays, we should start with evidence-based strategies like giving students enough time to eat lunch. About half of all school districts do not require (or even recommend) that students have at least 20 minutes to sit down and eat once they receive their meal. 

Myth #2: We don’t need to focus on reducing sodium. The USDA is putting kids on a “low-sodium” diet.  

The Facts: The USDA’s new proposal to reduce sodium in school meals is not a low-sodium diet but is instead designed to wean children off a high-sodium diet. The proposal sets gradual 10-percent reductions over several years and would still leave too much sodium in school meals. 

Most people in the United States consume too much sodium, increasing their risk for high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke. But did you know that these risks start in childhood? To keep children healthy, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends the following sodium limits: 

Child’s Age 

DGA Recommended Daily Sodium Limit 

4 – 8 years old 

Less than 1,500 mg per day 

9 – 13 years old 

Less than 1,800 mg per day 

14 – 18 years old 

Less than 2,300 mg per day 

On a typical day, however, children’s sodium intake is much higher at about 2,400 – 3,800 mg, and 9 out of 10 children consume sodium at levels far above the recommended limits. We need to cut the sodium in children’s diets across the board including in school meals, which may be the only nutritious meals that some students will consume in a day. 

While the USDA’s proposal on sodium is a step in the right direction, the USDA needs to set more ambitious goals to protect children’s health. 

Myth #3: Schools won’t be able to meet these standards. 

The Facts: There is no doubt that schools will need more support to implement these standards.  

Thankfully, the USDA recently announced $100 million in funding to support schools in offering healthier food. This effort, called the Healthy Meals Incentives, will include a recognition program, grants to small and rural schools; transformation grants to create a resilient, equitable, and nutritious school food system; and summits during which schools can share best practices and strategies. Many districts, like this one in West Virginia, have been sharing their strategies with others for years. 

Even before this program rolls out, schools across the country are already meeting or exceeding current nutrition standards. Analyses of school foods and milk also demonstrate that many companies have already developed products that meet strong standards. Many schools—for example, these in Maryland, California, and Washington—are already exceeding the USDA’s proposed standards. 

Improving the nutritional quality of school meals will take time and effort on the part of school nutrition providers, industry, government, and advocates, but these standards are feasible and critical to the health and well-being of children. 

While CSPI and our partners are advocating for updated nutrition standards, such as capping added sugars and reducing sodium at school breakfast and lunch, you can take these three myths with a grain of salt. Concerned parents and individuals can take action and urge the USDA to keep its proposal strong by submitting a public comment to USDA by May 10