School Nutrition Standards: Sights in the Rearview Mirror Leading Us Forward

Submitted by Jocelyn Karbo, MBA, RD, SNS, chair of the School Nutrition Service dietetic practice group and Donna Martin, EdS, RDN, LD, SNS, FAND, Academy past president and current policy and advocacy liaison for the SNS DPG

02/15/2022 - With all of the challenges facing school nutrition, it’s hard to remember that programs were well on their way to maximizing the school meal programs to ensure nutrition security for all U.S. children. Research showed strong nutrition standards established in the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act resulted in schools being the healthiest place in the United States for kids to eat.

In 2010, the HHFKA established standards to increase the variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains while limiting fat and sodium in school meals. Since then, there have been a number of changes in the standards coupled with flexibilities from the pandemic that have left many confused.

Throughout the pandemic, school foodservice directors across the country have worked tirelessly to ensure children have access to healthful, nutritious foods that meet strong nutrition standards – despite supply chain issues and labor shortages.

Donna Martin, EdS, RDN, LD, SNS, FAND, Academy past president and current School Nutrition Director at Burke County Schools in Georgia, has navigated daily challenges with supply chain shortages during the pandemic. She has dealt with shortages on many items, from yogurt to packaged breakfast items, and even drove to a local chicken plant to pick up whole muscle chicken on the bone. Martin's students have learned to appreciate the healthful foods they receive at school — foods they often were not able to get at home due to living in food deserts. (In fact, the students in Donna’s district have told her their favorite thing about the school meals they get is that they are "healthy.")

School foodservice directors have adapted to the "new normal," often making last-minute menu changes due to ingredients not being available or limited staffing. This is where the importance of U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Transitional School Meal Standards come into play.

On February 4, the USDA announced updates to school nutrition standards that provide school foodservice directors with a path forward while doubling down on the need to strengthen current standards. For the 2022-2023 school year, the following nutrition standards will be implemented:

  • At least 80% of grains served on the week's menu for school lunch and breakfast must be whole grain-rich.
  • Schools and childcare providers may offer children aged 6 and older flavored low-fat (1%) milk in addition to nonfat flavored milk, and nonfat or low-fat unflavored milk.
  • The weekly sodium limit for school lunch and breakfast will remain at the current level and, for lunch only, there will be a 10% decrease in the limit in 2023-2024 (this aligns with the Food and Drug Administration's recently released guidance that establishes voluntary sodium reduction targets for processed, packaged and prepared foods).
  • All other nutrition standards, including fruit and vegetable requirements, will remain the same as the 2012 standards.

The USDA also announced that it will work with stakeholders to develop and announce a proposed rule with updated standards in fall of 2022.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the School Nutrition Services dietetic practice group applaud these Transitional Nutrition Standards and recognize they are an essential piece of the puzzle as we move toward alignment with the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. It is important to note that many schools are meeting or exceeding these strong nutrition standards, despite all the supply chain challenges that have become all too common an occurrence for school nutrition directors.

As America continues to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, students can count on schools to provide healthful, nutritious meals that they want to eat. The transitional standards have allowed school nutrition professionals to start planning for the best possible pandemic rebound and to think about how we can strengthen the standards to align moving forward with the Dietary Guidelines. To ensure children are eating high-quality meals and establishing healthful eating habits, programs need more than just strong nutrition standards, including technical assistance, ongoing nutrition education, funding for proper small wares and equipment in schools, as well as collaboration with suppliers and manufacturers. The Academy will continue to advocate for these important priorities in the upcoming Child Nutrition Reauthorization.