The USDA’s School Breakfast Program and National School Lunch Program are cornerstone federal nutrition assistance programs. School meals are one of the healthiest sources of food for nearly 30 million American kids, some of whom get as much as half their daily calories at school. And now, those meals will align more closely with the science-based recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Here’s what changes are coming to school breakfasts and lunches.

Important changes coming to school meals

In April 2024, the USDA issued its 2024 Final Rule Requirements for School Meal Programs. This rule, effective July 1, 2024, updates school meal nutrition standards to bring them in closer alignment with the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The rule will institute the first-ever added sugar limits for school meals and update sodium standards, among other changes.

The meal pattern changes will begin to take effect starting in school year 2025-26 and will be phased in through school year 2027-2028. The new rule represents a significant step toward science-backed nutrition standards in US schools.

While healthy, school meals have room for improvement

In the last decade, the nutritional quality of school meals has improved significantly, thanks in large part to a 2012 rule that updated school nutrition standards following passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Between school years 2009-2010 and 2014-2015, school meals increased in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, and decreased in saturated fat and sodium.

Despite these marked improvements, school meals still have room for improvement. For one, school meals, particularly school breakfasts, are often too high in added sugars. The USDA's 2020-25 Dietary Guidelines for Americans 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 fact, some products formulated for school breakfast contain more added sugar than you’d find in a dessert. School lunches and snacks are similarly in need of improvement.

Aligning school meal nutrition standards with science-backed guidelines will improve the healthfulness of foods and beverages served in schools, which in turn could help kids form lifelong healthy eating habits. Additionally, 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.

Growing pressure to establish school foods added sugar limits

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 marketing 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 in which the agency announced a proposal to 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 school meals.

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.

Changes under the finalized rule

Lower added sugars at meal and snack services

Perhaps the most notable change in the new rule is the implementation of the first-ever added sugar limits in school foods. The rule includes new product-based added sugar limits for some particularly sugary categories of foods: breakfast cereals, yogurts, and flavored milks. These product-based limits will take effect in the 2025-26 school year and apply to school breakfasts, lunches, and snacks. Unlike the proposed rule, the final rule does not include product-based added sugar limits for grain-based desserts.

In addition to product-based added sugar limits, the new standards require that by the 2027-28 school year, schools must limit total added sugars in breakfasts and lunches to a weekly average of no more than 10 percent of calories per meal, consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Excessive added sugar intake among children is associated with an increase in risk factors for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and dental decay. Implementing these new rules will put kids on track to better avoid these and other health problems.

As Meghan Maroney, CSPI’s Federal Child Nutrition Campaign Manager, writes, “Particularly at breakfast, where cereals, flavored milks, and even yogurts can have too much added sugar to fit into a healthy diet, USDA’s final rule will bring added sugars down to safer levels in alignment with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”

Flavored milk is still allowed, but will need to be lower in added sugars

USDA solicited comments on the proposed rule about disallowing flavored milk in grades K-8. Ultimately, the final rule continues to permit flavored milk in all grades (K-12) but institutes a product-based added sugar limit for flavored milk—a key source of school meal added sugars. The new standards also preserve the current requirement that unflavored milk products are sold at all school meals.

Since 2012, whole and reduced-fat (two percent) milk have not been permitted in school meals, which is consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans’ recommendation to choose or switch to fat-free (skim) or low-fat (one percent) milk in order to limit saturated fat consumption.

The facts on whole milk: Why experts recommend, and school meals only provide, fat-free and low-fat milk

Reductions in sodium levels for lunches and breakfasts

The new standards include reductions in sodium levels for school lunches and breakfasts. The rule implements a reduction of 15 percent in sodium levels for school lunches and 10 percent for school breakfasts by the 2027-28 school year.

While the sodium reductions in the rule will help enhance the nutritional quality of school meals, the changes will not bring school meal sodium standards into full alignment with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Given that nine out of 10 children consume more sodium than they should, further work will be needed to align school meals with safe levels of sodium. The good news? Many products are already available that are lower in sodium and meet USDA’s final limits.

No changes to whole grain requirements

The new rule leaves current standards surrounding whole grain-rich foods unchanged. The rule maintains the current requirement that at least 80 percent of grains in school meals must be whole grain-rich products. The remaining grains are required to be enriched grains.

Many additional changes with big impacts

Menu planning options for American Indian and Alaska Native students: The new rule adds tribally operated schools, schools serving primarily American Indian or Alaska Native children, schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Education, and schools in Guam and Hawaii to the list of schools that may serve vegetables to meet the grains requirement.

Traditional Indigenous foods: The new rule explicitly states in regulation that traditional foods, including wild rice and blue cornmeal, may be served in reimbursable school meals, starting in the 2024-25 school year.

Afterschool snacks: The rule will align National School Lunch Program snack standards for school-aged children with the Child and Adult Care Food Program snack requirements, effective in the 2025-26 school year.

Substituting vegetables for fruit at breakfast: Current regulations allow schools to substitute vegetables for fruit at breakfasts. Given the importance of children receiving a variety of vegetables and fruits to help provide a balanced diet and critical nutrients, the new rule implements changes to widen the variety of vegetable offerings at breakfasts. Schools replacing vegetables for fruits at only one breakfast per week can choose to offer a starchy vegetable or any other vegetable, but schools that offer vegetables instead of fruits at two or more breakfasts per week must choose from multiple subgroups of vegetables.

Nuts and seeds: The finalized rule permits nuts and seeds to count for the entire meat, meat alternate, or protein source component of child nutrition programs. It is essential that the USDA and school food authorities continue stressing the importance of safe serving practices for younger children to prevent allergen exposures.

Bean dip exemption: The rule adds hummus and other dips made with peas, beans, and lentils to the list of foods that are exempt from the total fat standard in the competitive food, or Smart Snacks, requirements.

Buy American: The rule institutes a phased-in limit on the amount of non-domestic foods that a school food authority may purchase per school year, eventually reaching a five percent ceiling on non-domestic purchasing in the 2031-32 school year. This change will take steps toward creating more resilient regional food supply chains.

Geographic preference expansion: The new standards expand geographic preference to allow locally grown, raised, or caught to be used as specifications in school food authority procurement decisions for minimally processed or unprocessed food products. Under current procurement rules, smaller food producers have a harder time competing against larger ones. With this new change, school food authorities will have the option to designate and/or require that certain food items be produced locally in the bid specification. This will give local producers an opportunity to be competitive in the bid process.

CSPI has led the charge on school meals

The Center for Science in the Public Interest is a leading voice in advocating for healthy kids’ policies and programs, including healthier school foods, expanded healthy meal access, improvements to SNAP and WIC, safety reforms for infant formula and children’s foods, better restaurant meals for children, better enforcement of laws about marketing food products to children, and expanded fresh food options at common retailers like Dollar General.

CSPI has worked for years to strengthen the nutritional quality of school meals at the state and federal level, so that children have access to nutritious foods that fuel their learning. CSPI was a key advocate for the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which made significant improvements to school foods and other child nutrition programs. The legislation established national nutrition standards for all food sold in schools, strengthened local wellness policies, strengthened accountability of school meals, and improved meal financing to support healthy school meals.

CSPI also supports state and local campaigns to ensure healthy school meals and has engaged in litigation to protect strong standards in schools.

But the fight to strengthen school meals isn’t over

This substantial step is a historic win for child nutrition, there is much work left to be done to ensure that all children have access to nutritious foods in school. Schools will need continued support and resources (such as funding, technical assistance, training, and equipment upgrades) to be able to provide nutritious, appealing meals to students. Recent legislative efforts seek to undermine strong school meal standards. In a push to loosen school nutrition standards, lawmakers have introduced bills that would override, or, in the case of state legislation, circumvent federal school meal standards by permitting whole and reduced-fat milk in school meals. Congress must stay out of the science-based process of determining school meal standards.  

Accordingly, CSPI’s work on school meals is far from over. You can support CSPI’s efforts to strengthen school meals so that children have the nutritious foods they need to succeed in school.

Support CSPI’s ongoing efforts to strengthen school meals

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