How New Nutrition Standards Might Take The Sweetness Out Of School Food

The value of healthy school meals for children can have both individual and community benefits. According to experts at Healthy Schools Campaign, offering students nutritional school meals may not only boost focus, test performance, and classroom behavior but also fosters general wellness and connection between schools, families, and the community.

On February 3, White House agriculture officials proposed plans for improving nutrition in school meals across the country, as reported via the Associated Press. In particular, the new proposed USDA guidelines will target the reduction of sugar and sodium content in breakfast and lunch school meals in the years to come. "School meals happen to be the meals with the highest nutritional value of any meal that children can get outside the home," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack publicly stated in an interview (via Associated Press). By placing limits on levels of sugar and sodium allowed in school meals, experts hope to reduce conditions, such as obesity, diabetes, and hypertension, from developing in childhood.

In making these changes, officials also announced that financial grants will be available to help address funding barriers often faced by small or rural schools (per Associated Press). However, some experts feel more support is needed to help schools meet these higher nutritional standards, reports NBC News.

New sugar and sodium limitations

For sugar limitations, officials are starting off by zeroing in on breakfast foods often served in school meals, including yogurt, cereals, flavored milk, and breakfast pastries, reports the Associated Press. While the limitations would be enforced starting with the 2025-2026 school year, amounts of added sugars permitted in school lunches and breakfasts would be cut down to less than 10% of total weekly calories by the fall of 2027.

The nearly 300-page outline also details plans for future sodium limitations in school meals (via Associated Press). The current USDA guidelines permit kids in high school to consume approximately 1,280 milligrams of sodium per lunch meal. The new plan would lower this limit to 935 milligrams of sodium per lunch meal. By the start of the 2029 school year, the overall goal is to cut sodium levels in school lunches by 30%, explains Associated Press. The USDA plan also encourages the continuation of grain food sources to be predominantly whole grain items.

"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," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Friday, as reported via NBC News.