New nutritional standards for school meals have been proposed by the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service, in a bid to improve children’s access to healthier foods.
The changes, developed to reflect the most recent edition of the nation’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, propose lower levels of added sugar in foods part of school lunch and breakfast, as well as the gradual reduction of sodium in school meals.
While currently no added sugar limits exist in American school meal programmes, from the 2025-2026 school year, the USDA has proposed limits be introduced on grain-based desserts (such as cereal bars, sweet rolls and doughnuts), breakfast cereals, yoghurts and flavoured milks. They suggest the following:
- For grain-based desserts: no more than 2 ounce equivalents will be allowed per week during school breakfasts.
- For breakfast cereals: a maximum of 6 grams of added sugars per dry ounce will be allowed.
- Yoghurts: will be restricted to having a maximum of 12 grams of added sugar per 6 ounces.
- Flavoured milks: must have no more than 10 grams of added sugar per 8 fluid ounces, or 15 grams of added sugar per 12 fluid ounces for flavoured milk sold as a competitive food (products sold in vending machines, sold individually in the cafeteria, or concession stands) at middle and high schools.
From the 2027-2028 school year, the USDA is also proposing to introduce a weekly dietary limit, suggesting an average of less than 10% of calories per meal should contain added sugars in the school breakfasts and lunch category. Recent studies reveal kids in the US get around 17% of their calories from added sugars in school breakfasts, and 11% in school lunches. Around 80% of school-aged children consume far too much added sugar, according to the Dietary Guidelines.
As research shows most children in the US consume far too much sodium, the USDA is proposing to gradually lower weekly sodium limits in school meals. The proposal suggests lowering the sodium limit in school lunches by 10% each school year from 2025-2030, and by the same percentage in school breakfasts from 2025 to 2028.
Changes are also being proposed to the provision of whole grains in school meals. School lunch and breakfast programs currently require at least 80% of weekly grains offered to be ‘whole grain-rich’. The USDA has developed two proposals – one which would maintain the current requirements, with products having to contain at least 50% whole grains, with the remaining grains needing to either be enriched, bran, or cereal germ. The alternative option allows schools to serve non-whole, enriched grain foods, such as refined, enriched pasta or flour tortillas, one day a week.
To help it finalise the nutrition standards updates, the USDA has launched a callout for written comments on the proposed changes, which will be analysed prior to introducing the final rules. It is expected that schools will need to start preparing to implement changes to their food and drink offerings from the 2024-2025 school year.
Obesity in children and teenagers is a growing issue in the United States. Data from the period 2017-2020 showed that 20.7% kids aged 6-11 were obese, with the figure rising to 22.2% among 12- to 19-year-olds.
Find out more about the challenges around providing children with nutritious school meals in the UK in this Food Matters Live Podcast episode: