Amid pandemic and supply chain chaos, USDA “transitional” rule will increase whole grains and reduce sodium in school meals, while aiming for permanent change in two years.
The Department of Agriculture (USDA) on Friday morning announced a set of “transitional” school nutrition standards for the 2022-2024 academic years—the first major change in a decade. The interim rules are intended to make school food less salty and richer in whole grains, without being prohibitively strict for nutrition departments still facing pandemic-related supply shortages.
The standards will permit schools to continue serving flavored 1 percent milk for the next two school years. Beginning this July, the rules will also require that at least 80 percent of grains served in schools be “whole grain-rich,” which the agency defines as consisting of at least 50 percent whole grains. Beginning in the fall of 2023, the rules will mandate a 10 percent reduction in current sodium targets.
USDA said these transitional standards were meant to be a “middle-ground bridge” while it talks to stakeholders about how to make bigger changes in 2024 and beyond. In other words, it neatly straddles the line between standards that public health advocates have called for, and flexibilities demanded by lobby groups representing food manufacturers and school nutrition administrators.
Some important background: In 2012, Obama-era school food standards set in motion rules that would have required all flavored milk options be non-fat, all grains be whole grain-rich, and salt reduction targets be phased in within a set timeline. Under the Trump administration, USDA tried to relax those requirements significantly in an effort to accommodate producers and nutrition administrators, who argued they’d result in less palatable meals, and thus, more food waste. (It’s important to note that USDA’s own research found this wasn’t the case: Food waste levels remained the same even as meals got healthier.)
The interim rules will make school food less salty and richer in whole grains, without being prohibitively strict for nutrition departments still facing pandemic-related supply shortages.
Today’s standards fall somewhere in-between—setting a higher bar for school meals than those proposed under the Trump administration in November of 2020, without going so far as to fully re-establish Obama-era rules.
“USDA recognizes that schools may not be prepared to immediately implement the 2012 meal standards for milk, whole grains, and sodium,” the agency wrote, citing flexibilities that had been extended for school nutrition providers during the Covid-19 pandemic. “With this rule, USDA intends to provide a transitional approach in these areas while also acknowledging that a return to stronger nutrition standards is imperative.”
The School Nutrition Association, which represents school food administrators, welcomed the continued flexibility.
“School nutrition professionals are frantic just trying to get enough food on the tray for our students amid relentless supply chain disruptions and labor shortages,” said the organization’s president Beth Wallace in an emailed press release. “We greatly appreciate USDA addressing regulatory requirements.”
“These standards must be temporary and serve as a bridge to stronger nutrition standards based on the latest nutrition science.”
Public health advocates were slightly more critical, and urged the Biden administration to prioritize restoring 2012 nutrition standards as soon as practical in its next round of rulemaking.
“By clarifying the standards for sodium, whole grains and milk for the next two school years, this rule brings the meal standards closer to the strong, evidence-based standards that were adopted in 2012; however, closer will not ultimately be enough,” said Donald M. Lloyd-Jones, president of the American Heart Association in a press release. “These standards must be temporary and serve as a bridge to stronger nutrition standards based on the latest nutrition science.”
The agency said it’s moving toward permanent changes.
“This fall, we anticipate the Biden administration will come out with a rule that will update the nutrition standards with the 2020 Dietary Guidelines as required by law,” said Colin Schwartz, deputy director of legislative affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in a phone interview. CSPI previously sued the Trump administration over a 2018 attempt to rollback the 2012 nutrition standards.” That invariably will mean that sodium and whole grain standards will have to be put back on track and a new standard for added sugars would be included for the first time [….] We’re cautiously optimistic.”
The transitional rules, which will be open to public comment on Monday, can be found here.