Ensure USDA maintains the current, successful school nutrition standards, rather than implementing additional rules.
Current school nutrition standards limit calories, fat and sodium and require fruits, dark leafy greens, red/orange vegetables and legumes, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat milk in meals. As a result, research shows “schools are now the single healthiest place Americans are eating.” In School Year 2023-24, schools met additional Target 1A sodium reductions, and most implemented improvements such as increasing scratch preparation (52.6) and locally grown foods (55.6%) on menus.
Regardless of those efforts and despite a lack of any nutrition mandates for dining or retail foods, in February 2023, USDA proposed even more restrictive, long-term school mandates. This proposed rule, expected to be finalized in April 2024, fails to account for known challenges, including palatability and student acceptance, as well as availability and pricing of prescriptive foods formulated solely for schools.
USDA should focus on helping boost student consumption of healthy school meals, rather than making meal standards more restrictive. Despite ongoing efforts to promote healthy options, frontline school nutrition staff witness food-insecure children who choose not to eat at all if the meal is not familiar and appetizing to them. Cultural and regional preferences often influence students’ willingness to eat healthy school meals. Even the Institute of Medicine warned that meeting later sodium targets “in a way that is well accepted by students will present major challenges and may not be possible.”
Preliminary data indicates 1 million fewer students ate school lunch each day in FY 2023, compared to FY 2019, and 3 million fewer students ate school lunch daily since nutrition standards first took effect in 2012.*
Procurement and labor challenges:
In a recent survey of school nutrition directors, more than 90% reported challenges with the availability of foods that meet the new Target 1A sodium limits and are well accepted by students. Given limited demand for low-sodium and whole grain products in the retail market, many manufacturers and distributors are hesitant to prepare and stock specialty items for K-12 customers; 87.2% of school meal programs are challenged by menu item shortages.
Meanwhile, efforts to increase scratch preparation are hindered by ongoing skilled labor shortages and insufficient funding to increase wages and attract new employees. 90.5% of programs report challenges with staff shortages. Increasingly complex regulatory mandates will force many schools to rely on more highly processed foods to meet strict targets.
Given all these challenges, over 93% of school nutrition directors expressed concerns about proposed further sodium cuts and new milk and added sugar mandates.
To keep students eating healthy school meals, SNA’s 2024 Position Paper urges Congress and USDA to support school nutrition professionals in their continued efforts to maintain the current, successful standards.
*Note: Average daily lunch participation increased in FY 2022, when meals were free for all students.