USDA Updates School Nutrition Standards To Give Kids Healthier Meals

by Lauren Levy
JGI/Tom Grill/Getty

The new rules are all about elevating nutrition standards the the Trump administration cut

The United States Department of Agriculture announced this week that there will be new updates to school nutrition standards for the coming academic years. In an effort to help “build back better” following the pandemic, The Biden administration is shaking up school lunch menus with a reinstated focus on elevated health goals for the 2022-2023 and 2023-2024 school years.

According to The Washington Post, the USDA is reinstating stricter health standards for school lunches that were cut during the Trump administration. Allowing for a gradual change, while navigating pandemic challenges, the USDA issued “transitional standards” to “give schools a clear path forward as they build back better from the pandemic,” the USDA shared in a statement on Friday. This is meant to help give schools “time to transition from current, pandemic operations, toward more nutritious meals.”

The new requirements will go into effect at the start of the 2022 school year and elevates standards for milk, whole grains and sodium:

  • Milk: The options for students ages 6 and up will be only  flavored low-fat (1%) milk, nonfat flavored milk and nonfat or low-fat unflavored milk.
  • Whole Grains:  At least 80% of the grains each week in school lunches and breakfasts must be whole grain.
  • Sodium: School lunches and breakfasts can adhere to the current sodium standards for the upcoming school year. But come 2023-2024, school lunches will need to follow a new weekly sodium limit that’s 10% less.

“Nutritious school meals give America’s children the foundation for successful, healthy lives,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in the USDA’s statement. “These transitional standards are step one of a longer-term strategy to lean into the school meal programs as a crucial part of improving child health.”

Vilsack also noted that children receive their healthiest meals of the day at school, according to research, which underlines the importance of providing the most nutritious options possible. As the department also explained, school meal programs “provide critical nutrition to millions of children every school day” and these kids deserve the highest standard we can give them.

The USDA is also focusing on developing the next round of future requirements and will be seeking input from schools and “meal stakeholders” this fall before setting long-term nutrition standards starting with the 2024-2025 school year. “We’ve got to find the right balance between standards that give our kids the best chance at a healthy future based on the latest nutrition science, and ensuring those standards are practical, built to last, and work for everyone,” said Vilsack. ​​”We are eager to listen and learn from their ideas because when it comes to the health and well-being of our nation’s children, we must always continue to aim high and strive for the best.”

This comes after the Biden administration extended the universal free lunch program through the 2021-2022 school year. This move alone had an estimated massive impact on the estimated 12 million youth experiencing food insecurity. And it’s these same children who will benefit the most from schools being held to a higher nutritional standard when it comes to the food they serve.

“Together, these actions will pave the way to stronger, more resilient school meal programs,” the statement added. And this is much-welcomed news to the kids and their families who depend on them.