USDA proposes first-ever sugar cap, slower sodium reduction for school meals

Children learning in a classroom after a healthy lunch

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Statement of CSPI President Dr. Peter G. Lurie

The proposed rule announced today by the U.S. Department of Agriculture would continue the historic progress of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act by, for the first time, limiting added sugars in school meals. Despite a brief setback during the Trump administration—reversed by a judge after we sued—school meals have become better and better under the improvements required by that 2010 law. 

The proposal isn’t perfect, though. While the USDA is capping added sugars as we petitioned it to do last year, the rule disappoints on sodium: while it’s a step in the right direction, it’s not enough to get to our destination. 

School meal nutrition standards are based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The Guidelines recommend limiting added sugars intake to less than 10 percent of calories per day. School meals will be required to meet this limit by the 2027-2028 school year, but before then, the USDA proposes limits on some of the most sugary items in school meals—flavored milks, grain-based desserts, breakfast cereals, and yogurts. Implementing this will put kids on track to better avoid diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems. In elementary and middle schools USDA proposes to not allow flavored milks, the top source of added sugars for meals.

The USDA’s sodium reduction goals do not align with the Dietary Guidelines. We will need to continue to work with USDA, schools, and the food industry to reach sodium levels that are safer for kids. Nor does USDA’s proposal on whole grains align with the Guidelines. USDA should have maintained the 100 percent whole grain-rich requirement; instead, the rule stops short at 80 percent, which could slow or reverse the progress schools and industry have made to provide more whole grain-rich products. 

Fortunately, our research into the foods and milks made for schools shows that there is an array of adequate products that already meet these improved nutrition standards. Recent research analyzing elementary school menus in 2019, pre-pandemic, and again in 2022 found that compliance with nutrition standards was largely maintained, and that, in some cases, modest improvements were made. Schools are well on their way to meeting updated standards, and we applaud USDA for providing certainty to schools and industry with a goalpost.

Ultimately, we need Congress to increase school meal reimbursement. Furthermore, we continue to urge Congress (and states in the meantime) to provide free school meals for all children. School meals are a lifeline for many children—particularly those from food-insecure families for whom school lunch and breakfast might be their most important source of healthy calories. Healthy kids are better learners and grow up to be healthier adults—and that’s something that Republicans and Democrats alike can get behind. 

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