At the USDA Conversation on Healthy School Meals Roundtable, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced major initiatives at the U.S. Department of Agriculture that will support and enhance the health of America’s children through nutritious school meals.
“Our commitment to the school meal programs comes from a common goal we all share – keeping kids healthy and helping them reach their full potential,” said Vilsack. “Many children aren’t getting the nutrition they need, and diet-related diseases are on the rise. Research shows school meals are the healthiest meals in a day for most kids, proving that they are an important tool for giving kids access to the nutrition they need for a bright future. We must all step up to support child health if we are to achieve the Biden-Harris Administration’s goal of ending hunger and reducing diet-related diseases by 2030, in accordance with the National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition and Health. Strengthening school meals is one of the best ways we can achieve that goal.”
Secretary Vilsack announced that USDA continues to support efforts to enhance the health and quality of life of America’s children by:
• Proposing gradual updates to science-based nutrition standards in school meals;
• Recognizing school districts that have gone above and beyond in nutritional quality; and
• Assisting small and rural school districts in improving the nutritional quality of school meals
These efforts are part of the National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health which was released in conjunction with the first White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health in over 50 years, hosted by President Biden on Sept. 28, 2022.
Proposed updates to the School Meal Standards
In alignment with the administration’s and department’s commitment to giving kids a healthy start, Vilsack shared proposed updates to the school meal standards to reflect the latest nutrition science. These updates focus on a few targeted areas that will support even healthier meals for kids on a timeline that reflects critical input from school nutrition professionals, public health experts, industry, and parents.
By law, USDA is required to set standards for the foods and beverages served through the school meal programs, including nutrition standards that align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. School nutrition professionals develop meals that fit within those standards and reflect local tastes and preferences. Research shows that these standards are effective at promoting good nutrition, and kids who eat school meals are more likely to consume nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, and dairy products.
Last year, USDA issued transitional nutrition standards for School Years 2022-2023 and 2023-2024 to give schools clear guidance after requirements were temporarily loosened during the height of the pandemic. This also gave the Food and Nutrition Service, also known as FNS, time to develop the updated standards. With today’s announcement, FNS is proposing updated, science-based standards developed from the latest edition of the dietary guidelines and informed by public comments on the transitional standards, as well as over 50 listening sessions the agency held with parents, school nutrition professionals, public health and nutrition experts, partners from tribal nations, and the food industry.
Throughout its extensive stakeholder outreach efforts, FNS heard concerns from parents, teachers, health professionals, and others about the amount of added sugar in school breakfasts. In addition, schools, state agencies, and food industry partners expressed the need for ample time to implement any changes, so schools can plan, industry can develop new or improved food products, and kids’ palates can adjust. FNS also received input from the food industry and nutrition experts on how to best balance taste and healthfulness.
Using this valuable feedback, FNS is proposing a gradual, multi-year approach to implementing a few important updates to the nutrition standards to support healthy kids. These include:
- Limiting added sugars in certain high-sugar products and, later, across the weekly menu;
- Allowing flavored milk in certain circumstances and with reasonable limits on added sugars;
- Incrementally reducing weekly sodium limits over many school years; and
- Emphasizing products that are primarily whole grain, with the option for occasional non-whole grain products.
In some of these areas, FNS proposes different options and requests input on which would best achieve the goal of improving child health while also being practical and realistic to implement.
“USDA understands that thoughtful implementation of the updates will take time and teamwork,” said Stacy Dean, deputy under-secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services. “We’re proposing these changes now to build in plenty of time for planning and collaboration with all of our school nutrition partners. USDA will continue to do all we can to support our partners’ success, because nothing could be more important than giving kids the best chance at a healthy future. However, we cannot do this alone. Implementing the final school nutrition standards will require the support of schools and state agencies.”
Healthier school meals are possible when everyone who plays a part – school nutrition professionals, parents, students, school meal partners, and the food industry – work together. Building off the commitments made for the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, USDA encourages its partners to make commitments to support children’s health through healthier school meals.
The proposed rule also strengthens Buy American requirements in school meals, supports schools in using more locally grown foods, and seeks input on how to include more culturally appropriate foods in meals served to American Indian and Alaskan Native students.
FNS encourages all interested parties to comment on the proposed school meal standards rule during the 60-day comment period that begins February 7, 2023.
Significant financial investment in Healthy Meals Incentives
USDA is making a $100 million investment in the Healthy Meals Incentives initiative, which is dedicated to improving the nutritional quality of school meals. The initiative is just one of many ways FNS is investing in schools, including through its annual farm to school grantsand school equipment grants. The agency will also continue providing significant technical assistance to states to ensure they have the guidance and support they need to serve their local school districts.
“When millions of kids across the nation needed a place to turn for food during the pandemic, school food service professionals answered the call in a heroic way,” said Cindy Long, FNS administrator. “Their tireless work hasn’t stopped, as they’re continuing to serve high quality meals, even while enduring supply chain disruptions and high food costs. We recognize these challenges and are steadfast in helping our partners serve the most nutritious meals, while allowing time for gradual improvements that will make these gains achievable and sustainable.”
To further enhance USDA’s ongoing support for the school meal programs, the first phase of the initiative includes an allocation of $47 million for identifying and rewarding school districts that excel in their meals, and for supporting small and rural schools in adopting best practices in their lunchrooms.
Recognition for school districts that have significantly improved nutritional quality
To recognize school districts that have made significant improvements to the nutritional quality of their school meals, USDA is announcing today a $17 million grant for Action for Healthy Kids to identify, celebrate, and showcase schools implementing successful and creative strategies for serving healthy, appealing meals. To provide non-monetary recognition to school districts, Action for Healthy Kids will also host Healthy Meals Summits. Summit participants will share best practices and strategies for sustaining their nutritional achievements, which will serve as a blueprint for other schools nationwide.
Grants for small and rural school districts to improve nutritional quality.
Action for Healthy Kids will also help facilitate the sharing of best practices across the country and provide grants to help small and rural school districts improve the nutrition of their school meals. As part of the remaining $30 million, small and rural schools will be eligible for grants of up to $150,000 each to help them improve school meal nutritional quality.
In its final phase, the Healthy Meals Incentive initiative will expand nutritious food options for school meals through financial investments and collaboration with the food industry. The Healthy Meals Incentive initiative will also help increase demand from agricultural producers to provide nutritious commodities.