What Does the Latest USDA School Lunch Nutrition Standards Update Mean for Children’s Health?  

Student meal trays may look a little different in the 2022-2023 school year following the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) latest update to school nutrition standards.   

This update, which will run through the 2024-2025 school year, marks the USDA’s first official school nutrition standards change since 2012. The federal agency’s goal is to reinstate health goals that were scaled back during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The new final rule is known as the “Transitional Standards for Milk, Whole Grains and Sodium.” 

What changes are coming to student lunches and breakfasts?  

Schools will implement the following nutrition changes on July 1, 2022:  

Milk: Schools and child-care providers serving participants ages 6 and older may offer flavored low-fat (1%) milk in addition to nonfat flavored milk and nonfat or low-fat unflavored milk.  

Sodium: The weekly sodium limit for school lunch and breakfast will remain at the current level in 2022-2023. For school lunch only, there will be a 10% decrease in this limit for the 2023-2024 school year. This aligns with the FDA’s (Food and Drug Administration) recently released guidance that establishes voluntary sodium reduction targets for processed, packaged, and prepared foods in the U.S. 

Whole Grains: At least 80% of the grains served in school lunch and breakfast each week must be whole grain rich.  

All other nutrition standards, including fruit and vegetable requirements, will stay the same.  

What do these changes mean for students and their diets?   

The nutrition standards update should be viewed as a big win for children and teens, as recent studies indicate that many kids already consume their healthiest meal of the day in school cafeterias.  

In 2018, the JAMA Network Open found that the percentage of “poor nutritional quality food consumed from schools” declined from 55% to 24% over a 15-year span 

Improving the nutrients kids get in schools can influence their development, their ability to learn in class and provide them with the energy necessary to be active and play when they get home from school.  

Here’s how the three areas of nutrition affected by this update will be better off:  

Milk: The previous USDA regulation allowed fat-free flavored milk, but low-fat flavored milk was a no-go. The vitamin D and calcium content in milk is crucial for bone development.  

By expanding milk options in schools, kids may be encouraged to drink more of it instead of discarding full or half-empty cartons in the trash can. Nutrition is better in the body than it is in the trash.   

Sodium: The change aligns with recent Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidance on sodium reduction, which pointed out that more than 95% of children between the ages of 2 and 13 exceed the recommended limits of sodium for their age groups.  

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 1 in 6 children between the ages of 8 and 17 have raised blood pressure. High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke. Cutting back on salty foods and beverages today can help prevent heart disease tomorrow, especially for those who are overweight.  

Whole grains: More whole-grain rich foods on the school menu equals more long-lasting energy and concentration for kids. This can translate positively to the classroom and the gym or the outdoor field during after-school sports.  

Whole grains are a nutrient-dense food packed with phytochemicals, antioxidants, fiber, proteins, vitamins, and healthy fats. Opting for whole grains instead of refined grains can go a long way in lowering a person’s cholesterol and reducing their Type 2 diabetes risk.  

Photo credit: Getty Images

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