USDA Releases New Nutrition Standards for School Food for First Time in Fifteen Years

January 25, 2012

Today, for the first time in 15 years, the USDA released updated nutrition standards for school food. We applaud the USDA for taking this important step and applaud the many advocates who, by speaking up for a strong reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act in 2010, set the wheels in motion for the USDA to make these critical changes.

The new guidelines draw on the latest nutrition science and take into account the health risks facing children today, including the childhood obesity epidemic and related illnesses such as hypertension and diabetes. Updates include :

  • Increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables.
  • Reducing sodium in meals over the next 10 years.
  • Setting calorie maximums for the first time.
  • Serving only unflavored 1% milk or fat-free flavored or unflavored milk.
  • Increasing whole grains substantially.
  • Minimizing/eliminating trans fat.

You may remember a media storm late last year about a move by Congress to intervene in the USDA’s process and insist that a small amount of pizza sauce count as a vegetable in a school lunch, or a smaller buzz over the summer when potato lobbyists urged the USDA to remove limits on starchy vegetables.

What happened with those efforts? Simply put, the frozen pizza lobby got its way. The potato lobby got its way, too. As a result, the standards that the USDA released today are not as strong as the ones it initially proposed. That said, these standards are tremendously important and a significant step forward for school food. We are glad to see this important progress and are committed to supporting schools in putting the new standards in practice.

We see much work to be done and urge everyone who cares about healthy school food to stay involved. Here’s what you can do:

Talk with your school food service director. Find out how the school food leaders in your district are responding to the new guidelines. How do they approach putting the standards into practice? What challenges do they anticipate? Knowing that the school community is following the issue and is supportive of the health-promoting changes can make a big difference in implementation.

Take the next step: consider the HealthierUS School Challenge. These new standards set the minimum requirements for school nutrition; many school districts (both large and small) do and will continue to exceed the standards. If your school community doesn’t want to count pizza as a vegetable or serve french fries four days a week, think about ways that you can use voluntary standards to go beyond these requirements. The HealthierUS School Challenge, a voluntary USDA program, is a great place to start. At HSC, we worked with Chicago Public Schools to develop a school food program that meets the gold standard of the HealthierUS School Challenge. Learn more about the HealthierUS School Challenge here.

Stay engaged as the USDA develops standards for snacks and vending. Just as the Child Nutrition Act authorized the USDA to update school food standards, it also called for the agency to update standards for “competitive foods” — that is, foods sold outside the school meal program in vending machines, fundraisers or school stores. The USDA will take on this task next and needs advocates who care about healthy food in schools to stay engaged and lend support for health-promoting standards in this area.

    Kudos to the USDA for taking this important step and to the advocates and school food service directors who will work to turn these guidelines into healthier meals for our nation’s students.