Effective Jan. 1, the law will set nutrition standards to reduce sugar and salt while offering more whole grains in school meals as outlined in the federal proposed guidance. USDA’s final updated school nutrition guidelines are expected in April 2024.
In February, the USDA announced its proposed rule to gradually strengthen school nutrition standards through 2029. If finalized, the rule would require most schools to primarily offer whole grains beginning in fall 2024 with incremental reductions in sugar and sodium content phasing in over the next five years.
Advocates for the California bill tout the state’s codification of these pending federal school nutrition rules as a major step toward improving children’s health.
“California was the first state to provide two free meals a day to all public school students, so it’s fitting that California is now the first state to ensure that school meals are healthy and don’t contribute to lifelong health problems,” said California State Sen. Nancy Skinner, who sponsored SB 348, in a statement.
A July study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that updating K-12 nutrition standards to offer more whole grain products while reducing sodium and added sugars would improve children’s diets, blood pressure and body mass index. Additionally, the study said aligning national dietary guidelines with school meal standards could prevent 10,600 deaths per year in the long term related to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.
However, some school nutrition professionals are pushing back on these changes based on the logistical challenges they pose to school districts.
“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,” the School Nutrition Association wrote in a public comment on the USDA’s proposal.
Between November 2022 and January 2023, a USDA survey of school food authorities found 97% still experience one or more supply-chain related issues, including rising food costs and staff or product shortages.
At the same time, schools are seeing better compliance with meal pattern requirements, according to the USDA. In fact, 24% of school food authorities said they faced difficulties with such compliance in 2022-23, less than half the 58% that reported such difficulties in 2021-22.