Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced on Friday that new nutrition standards for school meals would focus on limiting sweetened foods and decreasing sodium in meals. This marks the first limit on added sugars in school meals.

In limiting added sugars, the new nutrition standards will target such items as cereals, yogurt, flavored milk, and breakfast pastries. Changes will be made in increments. School kids won’t go to the lunch room next week and discover that their favorite breakfast or lunch offerings now taste differently. For example, Vilsack wants to significantly decrease sodium in meals for school children but the goal of doing so isn’t until 2029. Included in the decrease in sodium are more flexible rules for foods made with whole grains.

It’s a big undertaking. The goal is to improve nutrition and align with U.S. dietary guidelines in school lunch programs. More than 15 million children are served breakfast every day and almost 30 million children are served lunch every day. “School meals happen to be the meals with the highest nutritional value of any meal that children can get outside the home,” Vilsack said in an interview.

In other words, the goal is to make school meals more nutritious than, say, fast food meals. We know that fast food, like burgers, is loaded with salt. Sugar is added to food and sauces to make them more pleasing to taste buds. The limits on added sugars won’t kick in until the 2025-2026 school year. As mentioned above, the first targets are sweetened cereals, yogurts, and flavored milk. Those seem like easy targets with which to begin.

Sugar is in all kinds of food we may not think about. When my doctor first mentioned keeping an eye on my sugar intake, I was surprised to see how much sugar there is in yogurt. Yogurt is supposed to be a healthy choice. Looking at the list of nutrients is an eye-opener. Fortunately, now there are zero sugar options in a lot of products.

Under the plan, for instance, an 8-ounce container of chocolate milk could contain no more than 10 grams of sugar. Some popular flavored milk now contains twice that amount. The plan also limits sugary grain desserts, such as muffins or doughnuts, to no more than twice a week at breakfast.

By fall 2027, added sugars in school meals would be limited to less than 10% of the total calories per week for breakfasts and lunches.

I realize I’m old and went to school when the dinosaurs roamed but it surprised me to learn that school meals often offer flavored milk. We never had that choice in school. It was white milk, take it or leave it. Chocolate milk was a treat, not a customarily consumed beverage. I can see why that’s a problem now. Kids have gotten used to flavored milk to get them to drink milk and now they expect it.

The goal to reduce sodium by 30% in school lunches is scheduled for the fall of 2029. To align with federal guidelines, sodium is recommended to be limited to about 2,300 milligrams a day for people aged 14 and older. The amount is less for younger children.

Levels would drop, for instance, from an average of about 1,280 milligrams of sodium allowed now per lunch for kids in grades 9 to 12 to about 935 milligrams. For comparison, a typical turkey sandwich with mustard and cheese might contain 1,500 milligrams of sodium.

The goal is to help decrease the risk of diseases in children like obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and other problems that can continue into adulthood. The new plan is a 280-page document (!) and it is getting mixed reviews. Some say the changes will help children lead healthier lives. Others say school meals are already more nutritious than just ten years ago and additional regulations are too much of a burden, especially for small and rural school districts. Diane Pratt-Heavner, the spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, a trade group, said, “School meal programs are at a breaking point. These programs are simply not equipped to meet additional rules.”

Vilsack counters the criticism by saying that the changes will go slowly to not overburden school districts. Changes will be phased in over six years. Schools and food manufacturers will have time to adjust. The USDA will fund grants of up to $150,000 to help small and rural schools make the changes.

Sugar substitutes are allowed under the new standards, Vilsack said. There is some flexibility in the whole grain requirements, too.

As part of the plan, agriculture officials are seeking feedback about a proposal that would continue to require that 80% of all grains offered in a week must be whole grains. But it would allow schools to serve non-whole grain foods, such as white-flour tortillas, one day a week to vary their menus.

Another option suggests serving unflavored nonfat and low-fat milk to the youngest children and reserving chocolate and other flavored milk for high school kids.

A 60-day public comment period on the plan opens Feb. 7.

I imagine that Vilsack and others in his department are doing all they can to avoid the mistakes of Michelle Obama’s dictates regarding school meal plans. Her plan was a disaster and not only did children just not eat the meals but an abundance of food was also wasted. It was a lose-lose situation. If changes are gradually implemented, certainly slowly over several years, the kids won’t even notice that there is less sugar and salt in their food. That should be the goal here.

You Might Like
Learn more about RevenueStripe...