The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced updates to school nutrition standards in a Feb. 4 news release.

By issuing transitional standards that will begin in school year 2022-2023 and that USDA intends to run through school year 2023-2024, the USDA is giving schools time to transition from current pandemic operations, toward more nutritious meals.

In 2022, USDA will continue to prioritize supporting schools as they navigate the challenges of the pandemic and related operational issues while also ensuring children continue to enjoy healthy meals at school. The department is also planning for the future by engaging with school meal stakeholders to establish long-term nutrition standards beginning in school year 2024-2025 that will be achievable and put children’s health at the forefront.

“Nutritious school meals give America’s children the foundation for successful, healthy lives,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “We applaud schools’ heroic efforts throughout the challenges of this pandemic to continue serving kids the most nutritious meals possible. The standards we’re putting in place for the next two school years will help schools transition to a future that builds on the tremendous strides they’ve made improving school meal nutrition over the past decade.”

Vilsack added that research shows that schoolchildren receive their healthiest meals of the day at school.

USDA previously updated the school nutrition standards in 2012. Schools were largely successful in implementing the standards, which had a proven, positive impact on students’ diets.

However, due to specific implementation delays and pandemic challenges, some schools may not be prepared to fully meet the standards for milk, whole grain and sodium at this time. The USDA’s recent announcement gives schools clarity on those standards for the coming school years, allowing them to gradually transition from the extraordinary circumstances caused by the pandemic to normal program operations and meal standards that are consistent with the latest nutrition science, as required by law.

The new final rule – Child Nutrition Programs: Transitional Standards for Milk, Whole Grains, and Sodium – establishes the following requirements beginning SY 2022-2023:

  • Milk: Schools and childcare providers serving participants ages six and older may offer flavored low-fat (1%) milk in addition to nonfat flavored milk and nonfat or low-fat unflavored milk.
  • Whole Grains: At least 80% of the grains served in school lunch and breakfast each week must be whole grain rich.
  • Sodium: The weekly sodium limit for school lunch and breakfast will remain at the current level in school year 2022-2023. For school lunch only, there will be a 10% decrease in the limit in school year 2023-2024. This aligns with the U.S Food and Drug Administration’s recently released guidance that establishes voluntary sodium reduction targets for processed, packaged, and prepared foods in the U.S.

All other nutrition standards, including fruit and vegetable requirements, will remain the same as the 2012 standards.

Planning for the future, USDA intends to issue a proposed rule in the fall of 2022 that moves toward updating nutrition standards for the long term. USDA is required to update school nutrition standards based on recommendations from the latest dietary guidelines for Americans. In doing so, USDA will prioritize seeking input from schools, industry and others to inform the process. The department expects to finalize that rule in time for schools to plan for school year 2024-2025.

“These transitional standards are step one of a longer-term strategy to lean into the school meal programs as a crucial part of improving child health. Over the coming months and years, USDA will work closely with its school meal partners to develop the next iteration of nutrition requirements. We’ve got to find the right balance between standards that give our kids the best chance at a healthy future based on the latest nutrition science, and ensuring those standards are practical, built to last, and work for everyone,” Vilsack said.