School breakfasts should include nutritious foods that fuel learning, but sometimes, school breakfast trays include sugary products resembling desserts. In 2023, the USDA proposed a rule to better align school meal nutrition standards with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, including the first-ever added sugar limits. The final rule is expected this spring.

School Breakfast 101

The School Breakfast Program provides low-cost or no-cost breakfasts at school to over 14 million students annually, most of whom receive meals for free or reduced-price. Meals are required to meet nutrition standards established by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Are school breakfasts healthy?

In the last decade, the nutritional quality of school meals has improved significantly, in large part thanks to a 2012 rule that updated school nutrition standards following passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Between school years 2009-2010 and 2014-2015, the average percentage of calories provided by saturated fat decreased by 23 percent, and the average sodium content decreased by 23 percent overall. Breakfasts also now contain more whole grains and whole fruit.

Despite these marked improvements, school breakfasts often have an added sugar problem. In fact, some products formulated for school breakfast contain more added sugar than you’d find in a dessert. 

School breakfast requirements are not currently aligned with science-based recommendations for added sugars

Excessive added sugars intake among children is associated with weight gain, dental decay, and an increase in risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

The USDA's 2020-25 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) recommend that no more than 10 percent of daily calories come from added sugars. However, recent research found that 92 percent of school breakfasts contained 10 percent or more of calories from added sugars.

In 2021, CSPI analyzed the nutritional quality of school food products to determine whether they could meet an added sugar limit consistent with the latest DGA recommendations. While many school breakfast products alone could fit within a DGA-aligned standard of no more than 10 percent of meal calories, several popular breakfast offerings do not currently fit within these limits.

For instance, Pop-Tarts Frosted Cinnamon Made with Whole Grain contain 30g of added sugars per a two-pack, a one-ounce package of Post Berry Colossal Crunch cereal contains 13g of added sugars, and a package of Yoplait Original Gluten-Free Yogurt contains 11g of added sugars. These products are included in school breakfasts despite their high added sugar levels.

The good news? Many of these companies already offer better alternatives, such as Post Frosted Shredded Wheat Strawberry cereal (5g/oz) and Trix Yogurt (5g), that are comparably lower in added sugars.

The USDA is expected to update school meal standards this April

In February 2022, CSPI, the American Heart Association, and the American Public Health Association petitioned the USDA Food and Nutrition Service to establish added sugars standards for school meals. CSPI also called on companies like Kellogg to stop selling products with excessive added sugar levels, such as Pop-Tarts Frosted Cinnamon Made with Whole Grain, to the school meals program.

In February 2023, the USDA released a proposed rule entitled “Child Nutrition Programs: Revisions to Meal Patterns Consistent With the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans” (88 FR 8050). The new standards would institute the first-ever added sugar limits for school meals, require gradual reductions in sodium levels, and maintain requirements for inclusion of whole grain-rich products.

In response to the proposed rulemaking, CSPI submitted a comment to the USDA in May 2023. In this comment, CSPI urged the USDA to issue a final rule that preserved the added sugar limits in the proposed rule and to strengthen the proposed requirements surrounding sodium reductions and whole grain-rich products.

Added sugar limits are a step in the right direction

If finalized as proposed, the new standards would require that by the 2027-28 school year, schools must limit added sugars in breakfasts and lunches to an average of no more than 10 percent of calories per meal, consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The standards would also include interim product-based added sugar limits for some particularly sugary categories of breakfast foods: breakfast cereals, yogurts, grain-based desserts, and flavored milks. Notably, the final rule could disallow flavored milks—a key source of school meal added sugars—in elementary and middle schools.

Beyond added sugars, there’s more work to do to improve school meal nutrition: current school meal requirements for sodium are similarly not aligned with science-backed suggestions. Research shows that aligning school foods with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans could improve kids’ health, reduce their risk of developing chronic diseases, and lower US health care costs.

But the proposed rule could go further on sodium and whole grains

Unfortunately, while the proposed rule does include sodium reductions, the changes would not bring school meal sodium standards in full alignment with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Additionally, the USDA sodium reduction efforts may also be limited or hindered by harmful policy riders that prevent the agency from implementing improvements. CSPI has called for stronger limits on sodium to further protect kids.

Moreover, the proposed requirements surrounding whole grain-rich foods do not go far enough. The rule would require 80% of grains in school meals to be whole grain-rich, rather than 100%.  

USDA support to schools

There is no doubt that schools will need more support to implement these standards. Thankfully, the USDA announced $100 million in funding to support schools in offering healthier food. This effort, called the Healthy Meals Incentives, includes a recognition program, grants to small and rural schools, food system transformation grants, and summits during which schools can share best practices and strategies.

How you can help strengthen school meal standards

You can sign up for CSPI’s emails to learn about future opportunities to support healthier school food. You can also support CSPI’s efforts to strengthen school nutrition standards to ensure that kids are receiving nutritious foods to fuel their learning. And school breakfasts are just part of the picture: ultimately, all of the food offered in schools, from breakfasts and lunches to snacks sold in school cafeterias and vending machines, should align with science-based recommendations.

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