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USDA cooks up plan for healthier school meals

New guidelines reducing sugar and sodium to be phased in over five years.

Joshua Baethge, Policy editor

April 25, 2024

2 Min Read
Serving vegetables onto lunch tray
Getty Images/SDI Productions

USDA is taking steps it says will give students healthier school meals and more options to choose from. On Wednesday, the agency released a final new rule for school meal standards. The changes are expected to be phased in between Fall 2025 and Fall 2027.

“The new standards build on the great progress that school meals have made already and address remaining challenges - including reducing sugar in school breakfasts, USDA Food and Nutrition Service Administrator Cindy Long says. “These updates also make it easier for schools to access locally sourced products, benefiting both schools and the local economy,” 

Additional limits on the amount of added sugar in school meals we begin in 2025. By 2027, sugars can only account for 10% of the total weekly calories in school breakfasts and lunches. Specific products like flavored milk, cereals and yogurts must also have less sugar.

The amount of weekly sodium permitted in school meals will be reduced by 2027. However, the new standards are not as stringent as those that had been originally proposed.

New requirements limiting the purchase of foreign-made foods go into effect in 2025. There are also incentives for buying more locally grown and raised goods. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says USDA will continue to look for ways improve equity in school meals and ensure that culturally appropriate foods are available.

According to USDA data, the announced changes are expected to have minimal cost impact on the national school lunch program.

Vilsack says the new rules are in line with goals set forth in the White House Conference on Hungers and Nutrition Health, which emphasizes the need for food security and nutrition security. He says USDA worked closely with school representatives and industry stakeholders to formulate a plan he believes will ultimately benefit students. The agency considered more than 136,000 comments it received on the issue before finalizing the new guidelines.

“I think it’s important to underscore that school meals matter,” Vilsack says. “They matter to the students who consume them, and in far too many cases, they are often the only meals that youngsters may get during the day.”

The National Milk Producers Federation applauded the new guidelines for solidifying the ability of schools to offer 1% and fat-free options in schools. In a press release following USDA’s announcement, officials with the organization called the new guidelines a “victory for schoolchildren” that’s been 12 years in the making.

“This final rule helps ensure kids will be able to choose a nutritious milk they tend to prefer,” NMPF president and CEP Gregg Doud says. “Many children prefer low-fat flavored milk over fat-free, and flavored milk offers the same nutrients as regular milk with a minor amount of added sugar.”

About the Author(s)

Joshua Baethge

Policy editor, Farm Progress

Joshua Baethge covers a wide range of government issues affecting agriculture. Before joining Farm Progress, he spent 10 years as a news and feature reporter in Texas. During that time, he covered multiple state and local government entities, while also writing about real estate, nightlife, culture and whatever else was the news of the day.

Baethge earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of North Texas. In his free time, he enjoys going to concerts, discovering new restaurants, finding excuses to be outside and traveling as much as possible. He is based in the Dallas area where he lives with his wife and two kids.

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