USDA provides much-needed temporary help for school meals, commits to strengthening standards in longer term

School Meals Corporate Report Card 2021 image

Statement of CSPI Deputy Director of Federal Affairs Colin Schwartz

With global supply chains and labor shortages for school food service staff not yet resolved, schools need more flexibility than ever to meet the challenge of serving one or two free healthy meals daily to millions of children. Thus far the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has provided necessary flexibility, including through COVID-related waivers from the school meal nutrition standards due to supply chain issues, and increased funding for school meals. But, the pandemic has underscored the importance of nutritious school meals, which are the only meals many children receive in a day and which have been a resounding success story for kids’ health—more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and less fat and salt on the lunch tray.

The final rule announced today by the USDA provides schools and the school food industry short-term flexibility over the next two school years to weather the pandemic. In particular, the rule provides flexibility on sodium and whole grains, which have posed more challenges than other standards, and allows more sugary milk in schools. The rule requires schools that offer flavored milk to also offer unflavored milk; flavored milk is the top source of added sugars in schools according to a study co-authored by CSPI. The USDA changed the requirement that schools provide foods that are at least 51 percent whole grain from five to four school days during the week and changed the baseline for sodium reduction by 10 percent for lunch next school year. That reduction aligns with the Food and Drug Administration’s recently released voluntary sodium-reduction targets for the food industry, which were in part the result of a CSPI petition and lawsuit.

Before the unprecedented challenges from the pandemic, the Trump administration introduced uncertainty by attempting to drastically weaken these standards. That rule was overturned by a federal court in 2020, as a result of CSPI’s lawsuit, leaving a void for this administration to fix.

The court victory restored the original timeline for schools to meet the standards. However, the timeline for sodium reduction needed to be updated. For instance, schools were supposed to have met the second set of sodium-reduction targets four school years ago (School Year 2017-2018) and the third targets next school year (School Year 2022-2023). Moving from one target to the next is about a 10 percent reduction in sodium for breakfast and 25 percent for lunch. While schools and companies were making significant progress, they still needed more time to meet these targets. We are disappointed that the rule effectively removes targets 2 and 3. The rule does specify that the USDA will develop long-term standards and we urge the Biden administration to expeditiously honor that commitment so that school meals can be aligned with the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans in a timely manner. In addition, while the vast majority of schools were serving more whole grains on the tray, some schools struggled. Then the pandemic’s impact on supply chains halted this progress.

As a practical matter, this rule is best understood as a temporary bridge. This final rule was needed as the pandemic waivers are lifted this summer, and we expect that the USDA will issue regulations that harmonize the school meal nutrition standards with the most recent edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, as required by law. That rule will mean that sodium and whole grain standards be put back on track for the long-term, and that a new standard for added sugars be issued for the first time.

We are also urging the USDA and Congress to increase technical assistance to give schools the additional support they need to make healthier school meals. Passage of the Build Back Better Act and a federal spending bill that increases technical assistance funding and is free of policy riders that weaken the standards would support these efforts. We hope similar funding supports will be included in a child nutrition reauthorization bill which hasn’t been passed since 2010.

We know that the largest companies that produce food marketed to school meal providers can already meet stronger standards. Recently, we analyzed some 2,000 products made by 28 such companies and found that they largely meet current standards for sodium and whole grains. This provides schools with a wide array of choices to meet the targets.

School meals are a vital source of nutrition for children. The USDA’s own study, the most comprehensive of its kind, found that the nutritional quality of school lunches and breakfasts has increased by 41 percent and 44 percent (measured through Healthy Eating Index scores), respectively, between school years 2009-10 and 2014-15 thanks to the updated nutrition standards. Not only are healthy kids better learners, they grow up to be healthier adults. The improvements made to the school meals program since the adoption of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act has been an historic success, but we can do better still and await the Biden administration’s commitment to strengthening the nutrition standards for the longer term this fall.