School meal programs have many choices for K-12 products that meet existing and proposed standards

The majority of K-12 school food products sold by the largest foodservice companies meet key federal nutrition standards and could meet new goals that further support children’s health, according to a new report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The 2021 School Meals Corporate Report Card analyzed nearly 2,000 K-12 products offered by 28 major foodservice companies to see if they met existing whole grain-rich (made with at least 51 percent whole grains) and sodium requirements, two areas that schools claim have been challenging to meet. It also assessed whether companies meet new proposed goals for added sugars, artificial sweeteners of concern, and synthetic dyes.

The report found that all companies had over 75 percent compliance with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) whole grain-rich requirements for the majority of grain food groups. Companies were either close to or at 100 percent compliance for USDA’s current sodium targets for lunch, the main source of sodium in school meals. In addition, most companies would meet a new standard, proposed in the report, that would require meals contain no more than 10 percent of calories from added sugars. Nearly all products would meet a proposed synthetic dye- and artificial sweetener-free standard. (Synthetic dyes are linked to behavioral issues in susceptible children, and certain artificial sweeteners should be avoided, primarily due to cancer concerns.) This means that schools have plenty of healthy choices from which they can select in their efforts to comply with the USDA and proposed nutrition standards.

"It’s encouraging to see that major foodservice companies have largely been able to deliver K-12 products that meet nutrition requirements, allowing schools to buy foods that meet federal guidelines and provide students with healthy meals,” said Colin Schwartz, deputy director of federal affairs at CSPI. “We urge the industry to continue to reformulate the minority of non-compliant products and support strong, science-based nutrition standards. We also urge the Biden administration to set stronger nutrition standards for schools.” 

Companies that sell salty culprits for lunch like pizzas, sandwiches, and burritos were virtually at 100 percent compliance with current sodium targets. In fact, none of the median amounts of sodium in any of these food categories exceeded the lunch target levels for any age. But there are exceptions. Schwan Foods, the nation’s largest school food pizza manufacturer, makes an easily compliant whole grain-rich pizza with 470 mg of sodium per slice, but also makes a personal pizza with a whopping 1,100 mg sodium (and not whole grain-rich). Two seemingly similar whole grain-rich burritos from Foster Farms can differ by 350 mg of sodium, either making or breaking compliance.

Similarly, companies that sell sugar bombs at breakfast—top sources of added sugars—like cereal, pancakes, breakfast pastries, and yogurt would have relatively high compliance with an added sugars limit. None of the medians for the top sources of added sugars exceeded breakfast targets for any food category at any age. However, there is room for improvement. Post Foodservice’s Marshmallow Mateys cereal has more than three quarters of a day’s worth of added sugars for an elementary school student, four synthetic food dyes, and more salt than a slice of pizza. Yet Post also sells a Frosted Strawberry Shredded Wheat cereal that is only one-third a day’s worth of added sugars for the same child, with no food dyes, and hardly any sodium. From General Mills Convenience and Foodservice, a school can choose between Yoplait Smooth with 11 grams of added sugar or Trix yogurt with a modest 5 g of added sugars (and no artificial sweeteners or synthetic dyes).

Artificial sweeteners appeared in some meat and grain products, yogurt, and in condiments and toppings but overall compliance was relatively high (company compliance ranges of 73 to 100 percent). Some products like Danone’s Light + Fit yogurt contain not one, but two harmful artificial sweeteners and schools need to watch for artificial sweeteners in products like Tyson’s Mexican Original 10" 100% Whole Grain Flour Tortillas that may seem unlikely to contain such sweeteners. 

Synthetic dyes appeared in meat and grain products, desserts, condiments, and even for some vegetable products. For instance, McCain Grabitizers Battered Preformed Onion Rings had not one but three synthetic dyes. Company compliance was relatively high (≥73 percent) for most food groups except vegetables, cereal, and desserts. 

The report found that for every product containing an artificial sweetener or synthetic dye, there were plenty of other similar products free of them. That said, cereals are the one area where no company sold cereals completely free of dyes (company compliance ranged from 58 to 91 percent; none reached 100 percent).  

In order to continue improving the nutritional quality of school meals, the report recommends that the USDA maintain the 100 percent whole grain-rich standard, update the compliance timeline for USDA’s targets and strengthen sodium reduction targets for younger children, establish an added sugars standard, and phase out harmful artificial sweeteners and synthetic dyes. 

“As school foodservice programs and supply chains currently face the challenges of COVID-19, the USDA must set strong but achievable goals to continue to improve the nutritional quality of school meals,” said Meghan Maroney, senior policy associate at CSPI. “Fortunately, the major school food companies have already made significant progress on existing standards and are well poised to meet new standards.” 

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) of 2010 strengthened nutrition standards for school meals, snacks, and beverages, resulting in school meals with more whole grains, fewer calories, less salt, and more fruits and vegetables. While these improvements have been significant, progress has lagged in certain areas such as sodium reduction, and there is currently no limit on added sugars. Fortunately, the USDA has announced plans for next fall to align the school meal nutrition standards with the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The report also outlines specific opportunities for improvement. The following examples show what companies can do to replace unhealthy products with healthier ones.