- As the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers final rules to gradually tighten school nutrition guidance, a recent study found updating K-12 nutrition standards for added sugars, sodium and whole grain would improve children’s diets, blood pressure and body mass index.
- If schools implemented new nutrition standards aligned with the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the change would “modestly reduce” the amount of added sugars and sodium children eat, while also increasing their whole grain consumption, according to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
- The study also found that 10,600 deaths per year tied to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer could be prevented in the long term if school meal standards matched current national dietary guidelines. On top of that, the move would save $19.3 billion in annual healthcare costs in adulthood, the study said.
While proponents for updating school nutrition standards can tout this latest study as evidence for their position, a recent survey from the Agriculture Department shows the challenging logistics districts may face if they have to adjust their school meals.
The USDA’s proposed rules, unveiled in February, would require schools to offer mostly whole grain foods beginning in fall 2024, with gradual sugar and sodium content reductions occurring through 2029. The agency is expected to issue final rules in April 2024.
Supply chain issues have persisted since the COVID-19 pandemic, impacting the availability and cost of food and labor for school meal operations, the USDA report said. In fact, 97% of school food authorities surveyed between November 2022 and January 2023 still experienced one or more supply-chain related issues, such as increased costs and staff or product shortages.
There are some early signs, however, that school food service operational challenges may be easing. Fewer school food authorities cited issues involving increased stress or staff workload, with 61% noting these challenges in the 2022-23 school year compared to 77% in 2021-22.
Schools also are having far less difficulty complying with meal pattern requirements, 58% in 2021-22 versus 24% in 2022-23. But schools were more likely to report lower student meal participation in 2022-23, at 42% compared to 16% the year prior.
The two studies reflect the ongoing, split debate over the USDA’s proposal and its impact on the fragile state of both children’s health and school food operations.
The School Nutrition Association shared in a public comment over the USDA’s proposal that school nutrition professionals have long worked to reduce sodium, calories and fat in the food served to students since the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed in 2010.
“With no end in sight to supply chain and labor challenges, most school meal programs nationwide simply lack the capacity to meet these proposed nutrition mandates and exceed transitional standards,” SNA wrote.
In announcing the USDA proposed rules in February, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack cited his concerns about childhood obesity.
“This is a national security imperative. It’s a healthcare imperative for our children. It’s an equity issue. It’s an educational achievement issue,” Vilsack said at the time.