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USDA Wants to Ensure That Kids Can Get Their Most Nutritious Meals From School | by heidi


The pandemic has highlighted the importance of school meals, especially for families dealing with food insecurity. To strengthen nutritional standards for school meal programs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released stricter guidelines for the next two school years.

The USDA will require schools and childcare providers to offer low-fat or nonfat unflavored milk. Flavored 1% low-fat milk can be offered alongside the unflavored options. At least 80% of grains served must be rich in whole grains.

Although sodium limit remains the same for now, the limit will decrease by 10% starting in the 2023-2024 school year. For other food items, school menus must follow the 2012 USDA standards, which called for more fruits, vegetables, and whole grain options.

The USDA’s efforts to establish better nutritional standards were successful, as a recent study found that kids receive their most nutritious meal at school.1

While many schools met the 2012 standards before the pandemic, a USDA spokesperson told Verywell that certain guidelines, especially those for milk, whole grains, and sodium, were never fully put in place due to legislative actions.

The newly announced transitional standards were designed to give schools more time to meet all of the USDA guidelines while still recovering from pandemic operation challenges.

“We were very happy to see this announcement,” Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, told Verywell. “It’s a sign of relief for our members that they don’t have to worry about trying to implement additional sodium reductions right now.”

However, Pratt-Heavner added that school nutrition professionals are still waiting for an announcement about COVID-19 waivers that have allowed flexible meal programs, such as offering meal pickups for remote learning students.2

“They are very worried about getting these waivers extended because they are already in the process of placing orders for next year and they don’t know what their budget is,” Pratt-Heavner shared.

USDA School Nutrition Waivers 

One USDA waiver addressed the increasing cost of feeding students during the pandemic.3"They've taken on a lot of additional costs, whether it's PPE or packaging for grab-and-go meals," Pratt-Heavner said.

These waivers are due to expire on June 30 unless they're extended. Pratt-Heavner added that waiver extensions and higher reimbursement rates are necessary to help school nutrition professionals navigate the supply chain disruptions that continue to drive up meal costs.

Elizabeth Campbell, MA, RD, senior director of legislative and government affairs with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told Verywell that the academy is also advocating for renewed waiver extensions.

"Daily, I'm receiving emails from my members saying, 'my items are going up in cost,' 'I'm having a hard time keeping staff,' 'people are burnt out.' It is just happening all over the country where there are labor shortages, supply chain issues, and, quite frankly, people who have just hit the wall," Campbell said.

While experts can't accurately predict when the global supply chain issues will be fixed, reports suggest issues will continue throughout 2022.

"At this point, people are doing the best that they can. Regardless of what the standards are, they are going to serve what they have access to. There's just such a real challenge in front of them," Campbell said. "They are always going to try to do what is best for kids, it's whether or not it's possible has been the challenge."

Congress on February 7 introduced a bipartisan bill to extend the waivers through the end of the 2022-2023 school year.

Future of School Nutrition Guidelines

While the new USDA standards are only transitional, the department plans to implement long-term school nutrition standards starting in 2024. Officials will consult with school nutrition stakeholders to make these standards both nutritious and attainable.

"We have been in communication with USDA and we intend to work with them very closely," Campbell said. "We're really happy that they are open to getting stakeholder feedback and making sure that they're taking into account the people who run the programs."

School nutrition advocates also acknowledge that long-term standards must ensure that kids still enjoy eating these more nutritious meals.

"We want to emphasize how much progress has already been achieved and the importance of making sure kids still want to eat in our school cafeterias," Pratt-Heavner said. "It's important to find the right balance of making sure these meals are healthy and also making sure they are appealing."