The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced major steps to promote the health of America’s children through school meals.

Nutrition standards for school meals will be gradually updated to include less sugar and greater flexibility with menu planning between fall 2025 and fall 2027. The USDA arrived at these changes after listening closely to public feedback and considering the latest science-based recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

K-12 schools serve nutritious breakfasts and lunches to nearly 30 million children every school day. These meals are the main source of nutrition for more than half of these children and help improve child health.

“We all share the goal of helping children reach their full potential,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Like teachers, classrooms, books, and computers, nutritious school meals are an essential part of the school environment, and when we raise the bar for school meals, it empowers our kids to achieve greater success inside and outside of the classroom.”

The final rule is a significant step toward advancing a national strategy to end hunger and reduce diet-related disease by 2030 set forth at the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health in September 2022.

Key updates to the nutrition standards to support healthy kids include:

Added Sugars

  • For the first time, added sugars will be limited in school meals nationwide, with small changes happening by fall 2025 and full implementation by fall 2027. USDA heard concerns from parents and teachers about excessive amounts of added sugars in some foods, which factored into this new limit. Research shows that these added sugars are most commonly found in typical school breakfast items. Childcare operators will also begin limiting added sugars in cereals and yogurts – rather than total sugars – by fall 2025.


  • Schools can continue to offer flavored and unflavored milk, which provide essential nutrients that children need, such as calcium, vitamin D and potassium. There will be a new limit on added sugars in flavored milk served at breakfast and lunch by fall 2025. Thirty-seven school milk processors – representing more than 90% of the school milk volume nationwide – have already committed to providing nutritious school milk options that meet this limit on added sugars.


  • Schools will need to slightly reduce sodium content in their meals by fall 2027. In response to public comments, the USDA is only requiring one sodium reduction, and not the three incremental reductions that were proposed last year. This change still moves our children in the right direction and gives schools and industry the lead time they need to prepare. The sodium limits in this final rule will be familiar to schools, as they were supported by leading school nutrition and industry stakeholders during previous rulemaking activities in 2017 and 2018.

Whole Grains

  • Current nutrition standards for whole grains will not change. Schools will continue to offer students a variety of nutrient-rich whole grains and have the option to offer some enriched grains to meet students’ cultural and taste preferences.

Supporting Other Food Preferences

  • While not a new requirement, starting in fall 2024, it will be easier for schools to serve protein-rich breakfast foods such as yogurt, tofu, eggs, nuts and seeds, which can help reduce sugary food options, while also supporting vegetarian diets and other food preferences.

Supporting Local Food Purchases

  • Also starting in fall 2024, schools have the option to require unprocessed agricultural products to be locally grown, raised or caught when making purchases for school meal programs, making it easier for schools to buy local foods. Additionally, starting in fall 2025, schools will have limits on the percentage of nondomestic grown and produced foods they can purchase, which will enhance the role of American farmers, producers, fishers, and ranchers in providing nutritious foods to schools.

For more information about how school meals will be strengthened, see these resources:

What’s Staying the Same

School meals will continue to emphasize fruits and vegetables; whole grains; and give kids the right balance of many nutrients for healthy, tasty meals. School nutrition professionals are local experts in their communities and will continue serving meals that their students want to eat, while also prioritizing cultural and religious food preferences.

School Districts Empowered to Meet Updated Standards

The USDA’s announcement comes a few weeks after the Spring 2024 Healthy Meals Summit in St. Louis, Missouri, where hundreds of school nutrition professionals gathered to celebrate and share their innovative efforts to enhance the nutritional quality of school meals. As part of USDA’s Healthy Meals Incentives Initiative, 264 small and rural school districts each received up to $150,000 to equip them with the resources to improve their meal service operations and help them meet these updated nutrition standards.

Through the School Food System Transformation Challenge Grants, the initiative is also supporting innovation in the school meals market by increasing collaboration between schools, food producers and suppliers and other partners.

Additional Background on School Nutrition Standards

By law, the USDA is required to set standards for the foods and beverages served through the school meal programs that align with the goals of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Each school develops meals that fit within these standards and reflect tastes and preferences of the students they serve.

The department proposed updates to the standards in February 2023 and received tremendous feedback during the 90-day public comment period that resulted in more than 136,000 total public comments. These comments were considered in the development of the finalized nutrition standards. Leading up to the proposed standards, USDA held more than 50 listening sessions with state agencies, school districts, advocacy organizations, tribal stakeholders, professional associations, food manufacturers and other federal agencies.

To learn about more ways USDA is investing in school meal programs, see the Support for Schools webpage.

Additional Resources