Our Take on New USDA Proposed Changes to School Meals

In January, the USDA proposed some changes to school meal rules that could undermine kids’ health. As with any regulatory changes, the public has the opportunity to weigh in before the public comment period ends on April 22. Here’s our take.

School food is complex, and so is the USDA’s proposed rule.

With almost 30 million kids across the country eating school meals every day, school food is a massive, complex operation. School meals are also a great opportunity to teach kids about healthy food and help them learn to love it.

But keeping that size and scale in mind, try to imagine creating a national set of science-based nutrition standards that prioritizes kids’ health, responds to the needs of school nutrition professionals who implement those standards under tight budgets, and competes with our national “fast food” culture. It’s a real challenge!

At FoodCorps, kids’ health is our top priority, and the goal that ultimately drives our policy work. A recent USDA study found that the 2012 update to the school nutrition standards resulted in the healthfulness of school lunches improving from a score of 58 to 81 (out of a max of 100). And school meal participation was highest in schools that had the healthiest meals. 

So when the USDA proposed a set of changes to school nutrition standards in January, we knew it was important to take time to hear directly from some of our school nutrition partners and other stakeholders to learn how these changes would impact their operations and the kids they serve. 

What we heard was a thoughtful and nuanced reaction to the proposed changes. We considered that feedback carefully, while also thinking through the potential impact on kids’ health, to determine our final position. While the proposed changes in the rule touch on many aspects of school meals, our response focuses on the proposals that impact what shows up on the tray. Here’s where we landed:

FoodCorps urges the USDA to uphold strong nutrition standards and build on the progress schools across the country are making to serve healthy school meals.

We oppose the following aspects of the proposal: 

  • Reducing vegetable variety: Currently, school nutrition standards require a variety of vegetables to be served from five different vegetable subgroups in order to ensure kids are exposed to a wide variety of vegetables and to “eat a rainbow,” as recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. We urge the USDA to maintain the current requirements for the variety of vegetable subgroups served in lunch and breakfast. The current standards recognize that certain categories of vegetables are generally over-consumed or consumed in sufficient quantities, and therefore prioritize under-consumed vegetable varieties. We believe it is important to expose kids to a variety of vegetables.  
  • A la carte exemptions: The USDA is proposing a change to school meals rules that could allow schools to sell less healthy offerings to kids more frequently with items sold in the cafeteria outside of the school meal program, or a la carte. We oppose this proposal, as it could allow for greater access to less healthy options and also furthers inequity between the students who can afford to purchase these items and those who cannot.  

Because we know that school breakfasts can be overly sugary, we support the following proposals related to school breakfast with additional qualifications: 

  • Reducing fruit in breakfasts served outside the cafeteria: The USDA’s proposal calls for reducing the amount of fruit that must be offered for breakfasts served outside of the cafeteria. While we would generally disagree with a reduction in requirements for fruit offerings, we believe reducing the requirement for fruit served in breakfasts outside the cafeteria is acceptable only if there is a stipulation that the fruit that is offered is whole fruit, and not juice. Whole fruit is nutritionally superior to juice.
  • Flexibility to offer meat/meat alternates at breakfast: The USDA is proposing to allow schools to offer meat/meat alternates during breakfast with no minimum required amount of grain offerings. Because this could lead to less sugary breakfast offerings, we support this proposal, but only if the USDA provides strong guidance to ensure against an increase in processed meats that can be harmful to health. 

We support the proposal to allow:

  • Legumes offered as a meat alternate to count toward weekly legume vegetable requirement: This proposal would allow a legume-based meat alternate, such as a vegetarian bean burrito or chickpea burger, to also count toward weekly requirements for legumes, while maintaining the requirement to offer a separate vegetable, thereby facilitating the service of more plant-based protein options. 

FoodCorps urges the USDA to support hands-on food and nutrition education and other strategies as a solution to plate-waste issues.

Throughout the USDA’s proposal, the agency often cites food waste as an issue to justify their proposed changes. Yet the USDA’s own data demonstrate that food waste did not increase as a result of the 2012 changes in nutrition standards. That said, we know that food waste is still an issue that needs to be addressed. Rather than changing nutrition standards, we urge the USDA to pursue and invest in strategies we know will help get kids to eat their meals and reduce food waste.  

For example, we know that strong, hands-on food and nutrition education can drive healthy behavior changes and greater consumption of healthy food. Similarly, farm-to-school practices, including school gardens, can also get kids excited about eating healthier food. Lastly, plate waste can result from kids not having adequate time to eat. Kids often have short lunch periods that do not provide sufficient time to get to the cafeteria, pick up their meal, sit down, and eat their food while trying to socialize and connect with their peers. Strategies to streamline lunch service and lengthen the lunch period could help here, too.

We know that running school meals is a complicated and difficult operation, yet we also know that we must do what is best for our kids’ health. We value the fantastic, often unsung work schools do to connect more than 30 million kids to meals every school day. We must do all we can to support schools with the resources they need to make the meals on the tray as healthy as possible, and to get kids excited about eating those meals. 

Your voice matters: Tell the USDA to make kids’ health a top priority!

The USDA is accepting public comments on this proposal until April 22, and the agency is required to consider the feedback it receives before issuing a final rule. Take one minute to submit your comment and urge the USDA to prioritize kids’ health!