USDA allows flavored milk, more sodium and fewer whole grains in school nutrition

The U.S. Department of Agriculture rolled out its final rule on school nutrition standards Dec. 6, allowing schools to ease up on whole grains, permanently serve 1 percent flavored milk and take their time reducing sodium levels in school lunches.

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a statement the Child Nutrition Programs: Flexibilities for Milk, Whole Grains and Sodium Requirements final rule will help encourage kids to stick to nutrition programs that are more appealing than their predecessors. Earlier this year he said healthy school lunches wouldn’t do any good “if they wind up in the trash can.”

“If kids are not eating what is being served, they are not benefiting, and food is being wasted,” he said. “We all have the same goals in mind—the health and development of our young people. USDA trusts our local operators to serve healthy meals that meet local preferences and build bright futures with good nutrition.”

The new final rule effectively eliminates the USDA’s final sodium target, which was slated to be met by the 2022-2023 school year and was aligned with the 2010 and 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Instead, the rule retains sodium target 1 through the end of the 2023-2024 school year and aims for target 2 as a final goal. Sodium target 2 dictates high school kids should be served no more than 1,080 milligrams of sodium per school lunch, but that’s still 340 mg more sodium than the original final target would have allowed.

The final rule also amends the current whole grains standard, which used to require all grains served to students to be whole-grain rich. Now, just half of grains will need to be whole-grain rich, which Perdue said will end the need for schools to apply for exemptions to the rule.

The USDA reported in 2018 approvals for whole grains exemptions had jumped 10 percent over the past school year, citing that as a reason to extend the exemption process. But the American Heart Association wasn’t convinced, noting the increase in approvals were likely due to other factors, like elevated awareness.

“The intent of the current waiver process was to give programs extra time if acceptable whole grain-rich food products were not readily available,” former AHA President John J. Warner, MD, wrote in a Jan. 29, 2018, letter to Tina Namian, chief of the school programs branch at the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service. “It was not intended to be an indefinite extension.”

The last major addition to the final rule allows schools to permanently offer low-fat, flavored milks in the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program—a revision that will also be extended to those aged 6 and up in the Special Milk Program for Children and Adult Care Food Program. The AHA acknowledged flavored milks are more palatable to children, but said the added calories and saturated fat that go hand-in-hand with flavored milk are concerning.

The final rule will affect nearly 99,000 schools and 30 million children in the U.S., Perdue said. He called the new amendments “common-sense flexibilities.”

“When it comes to our children’s health, there should be no ‘flexibility,’” AHA officials retaliated in a Dec. 6 statement. “USDA’s decision to weaken the standards—despite overwhelming opposition—threatens to reverse our progress toward ensuring our nation’s children receive healthy meals at school that help them attain better long-term health and academic success.

"If the concern truly was to provide those few schools experiencing challenges with more ‘flexibility,’ the more responsible approach would have been for USDA to provide more technical assistance to these institutions so they could offer healthier food choices.”

The AHA suggested schools reject the final rule or risk putting their students’ health in jeopardy.

“We strongly believe that all schools can meet the original nutrition standards,” the statement read. “It is in the best interests of our children for schools to keep moving in that direction, despite this latest USDA rule."