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Updates to the School Nutrition Standards | Food and Nutrition Service – USDA Food and Nutrition Service

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Research shows that school meals are the most nutritious food source for American schoolchildren—thanks in large part to the work of school nutrition professionals, parents, school meal partners, the food industry, and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to make school meals healthier over the past decade.

USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) published the final rule titled, Child Nutrition Programs: Meal Patterns Consistent With the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which is the next step in continuing the science-based improvement of school meals and other USDA child nutrition programs (CNP), as well as advancing USDA’s commitment to nutrition security. The changes are based on a comprehensive review of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025, robust stakeholder input on the CNP meal patterns, and lessons learned from prior rulemakings. 

While this rulemaking is effective July 1, 2024, USDA is gradually phasing in required changes over time. Program operators are not required to make any changes to their menus as a result of this rulemaking until school year 2025-26 at the earliest.

Click on the icons below for more information on the proposed nutrition standards provisions.

A full description of all provisions is available for download. These provisions are designed to respond to stakeholder feedback and strengthen the school meal programs.

Why is USDA updating the nutrition requirements for school meals?

Strengthening school meals is one of the best investments we can make in our children’s futures. USDA’s commitment to work with school meal partners to provide nutritious school meals comes from a common goal we all share: to help children lead healthier lives.

By law, USDA is required to develop school nutrition standards that reflect the goals of the most recent edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Yet most children are consuming too much added sugars and sodium and not enough fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, leading to a rise in diet-related diseases. By following the science and listening to extensive feedback from all our school meal partners, USDA is making gradual updates to the school nutrition standards in a few key areas to give children the right balance of many nutrients for healthy, tasty meals.

What do families need to know about the changes to school meals?

Healthy school meals are an essential part of the school day and set kids up for success in and out of the classroom . School nutrition staff work tirelessly to serve children meals that are delicious and nutritious. And it shows: research found that school meals are the healthiest meals most children get in a day. Still, there is room for improvement. For example, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting added sugars to less than 10 percent of calories daily; but currently, about 17 percent of calories in school breakfasts and 11 percent of calories in school lunches are from added sugars.

Through the final rule, USDA updated school meals in a few key areas to make them even more nutritious. For the first time, USDA will require schools to focus on products with less added sugars, especially in school breakfast. The reductions in added sugars and sodium as well as other changes will phase in over several years to give schools and students time to adjust to the new menus. So many people and organizations – parents, school nutrition professionals, public health advocates, the food industry, state agencies, and others – shared their feedback, and USDA listened.

What do schools need to know about the updates to the school nutrition requirements and menu planning flexibilities?

These gradual updates come from a shared goal: to help children lead healthier lives.

School meals will continue to emphasize fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and give children the right balance of many nutrients for healthy, tasty meals. For the first time, schools will also focus on offering products with less added sugars, especially in school breakfast. School nutrition directors will also have more flexibility to prepare and offer students’ favorites, including plant-based foods, culturally inclusive choices, and local meals and snacks.

Schools and the food industry let us know that changes to the nutrition requirements need to be gradual and predictable to give them time to plan, develop and reformulate products, and allow children’s taste preferences time to adapt. We took this feedback seriously; schools will not be required to make any changes to their menus for the coming school year 2024-25. Changes in the rule will phase in  between fall 2025 and fall 2027, including an achievable one-step sodium reduction.

USDA is grateful for the dedication of school nutrition professionals who serve students healthy meals with kindness and care. Knowing some schools continue to face challenges, USDA will continue to provide our school nutrition professionals with all the support we can to help them succeed, including funding for equipment, training, technical assistance, and other innovations.

What are the specific updates to school meals?

Updates in the following key areas build on the current school nutrition requirements:

  • Added Sugars1 : Starting in school year 2025-26 (July 1, 2025), there will be a limit on the amount of added sugars allowed for specific foods that tend to be higher in added sugars: breakfast cereals, yogurt, and flavored milk. Starting in school year 2027-28 (July 1, 2027), in addition to limits on added sugars in those specific foods, no more than 10 percent of weekly calories in the meals can be from added sugars.
  • Milk: Flavored milk (fat-free and low-fat) may still be offered in all K-12 schools. Limits on added sugars for flavored milk must be implemented by school year 2025-26 (July 1, 2025). Through the Healthy School Milk Commitment, companies representing more than 90 percent of the school milk market in the U.S. have committed to provide school milk options with no more than 10 grams of added sugars per 8 ounces by school year 2025-26, which aligns with the required limits on added sugars for flavored milk.
  • Whole Grains: There are no changes to whole grains nutrition requirements for school meals. Schools will continue to ensure that 80 percent of the weekly grains offered in the school meal programs are primarily whole grain (containing at least 50 percent whole grains). Schools still have the option to occasionally offer non-whole, enriched grain foods that meet students’ cultural needs and flavor preferences.
  • Sodium: Based on public input, schools will have several years to gradually reduce sodium from current limits. By school year 2027-28 (July 1, 2027), schools will implement a single achievable reduction to sodium for school breakfast (10 percent decrease) and lunch (15 percent decrease).

Other updates:

  • Provides more flexibility at breakfast by allowing schools to offer meats and meat alternates (such as yogurt; beans, peas, and lentils; eggs; tofu) as part of a nutritious school meal.
  • Supports more culturally inclusive meals, including traditional Indigenous foods in schools serving primarily American Indian and Alaska Native students.
  • Gradually phases in a limit to non-domestic food purchases so that no more than 5 percent of school food authority total food purchases can come from outside of the U.S.
  • Eases procurement challenges, increases market opportunities for small and medium-sized producers, and supports access to locally grown, raised, and caught unprocessed foods.

A full description of all changes in the rule is available for download.


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How did USDA decide what to include in the school meal updates?

By law, school nutrition requirements must reflect the goals of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The updates are based on the latest nutrition science, real-world experience from school nutrition professionals, and input from many individuals and groups who care deeply about children’s health. We all share the common goal of helping students reach their full potential.

USDA held over 50 listening sessions with parents, teachers, school nutrition professionals, public health and nutrition experts, advocacy groups, partners from tribal nations, and the food industry to develop the updated standards. USDA then carefully considered over 136,000 public comments received on the proposed rule prior to making changes in this final rule.

If school meals are already healthy, why is USDA making changes?

Millions of children rely on school meals and snacks for more than half of their food intake during the school week, and for many children, school meals and snacks are the most nutritious foods they get in a day. However, recent research has shown there is still room for improvement. For example, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans show that about 70-80 percent of school children get too many added sugars. Similarly, a USDA study found that more than 90 percent of schoolchildren typically got more sodium than is recommended. With preventable diet-related diseases like diabetes and hypertension on the rise, the incremental changes being made are intended to support children’s health, because even small nutritional improvements can have a large impact over time.

Will other child nutrition programs be impacted by these updates?

Some of the updates in the final rule will impact the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) and/or the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). Please visit the CACFP/SFSP Implementation Timeline for detailed information.

Are these kinds of changes only happening with school meals or other child nutrition program meals?

Reducing added sugars and sodium in the food supply is a challenge in schools, at home, in restaurants, and many other places. USDA’s plans to reduce sodium and added sugars in school meals take into account that changes also need to occur in the food supply because we all share the responsibility to improve nutrition for children and adults.

In 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) included added sugars on the Nutrition Facts label for the first time, which helps consumers and school menu planners more easily identify added sugars in the foods and beverages we eat, drink, and serve to students. Companies representing more than 90 percent of the school milk market in the U.S. have committed through the Healthy School Milk Commitment to provide school milk options with no more than 10 grams of added sugars per 8 ounces by school year 2025-26. This commitment aligns with USDA’s required limits on added sugars for flavored milk.

This final rule supports a gradual reduction of sodium in children’s diets, consistent with the goals of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans as well as the FDA’s voluntary sodium reduction goals for industry. As the U.S. food supply starts to contain less sodium, thanks to the FDA’s voluntary sodium reduction effort, the meals children eat outside of school will better reflect the nourishing meals they get in school.

How do the updates support culturally inclusive school meals?

USDA encourages schools to plan and serve culturally inclusive meals for their students, which is an important part of nutrition equity. For example, with the updates, schools serving primarily American Indian and Alaska Native children will be able to serve vegetables – such as breadfruit, prairie turnips, yams, plantains, or sweet potatoes – to meet the grains requirement. The flexibility to serve vegetables to meet the grains requirement is also extended to all schools, sponsors, institutions, and facilities in Guam and Hawaii.

The final rule also encourages schools to offer traditional Indigenous foods in school meals. This is already allowed and is now included in regulation.

What changes are being made to the Buy American provision to support purchase of domestic foods in school meals?

USDA requires schools to purchase domestic products as much as possible while recognizing that is not always practical. Known as the Buy American provision, this supports the mission of the child nutrition programs (CNPs), which is to serve children nutritious meals and support American agriculture. USDA can make exceptions when schools need to buy non-domestic foods, and this rule will reduce – over several years – the percentage of non-domestic foods allowed in CNP meals. Phasing in this change will allow school meal partners time to plan and prepare while upholding the importance of purchasing domestic foods for school meal programs.

How do the updates support buying local foods for school meals?

The updates simplify purchasing local foods for child nutrition programs. The expanded geographic preference option allows program operators to include local as a procurement specification for locally grown, raised, and caught unprocessed agricultural products for the first time starting in school year 2024-25. They will continue to have the option of using a defined scoring advantage for unprocessed agricultural products from a specific geographic area or adopt a mix of both strategies to support local sourcing.

Will students eat the healthier meals?

USDA recognizes that it takes time to change students’ food preferences and habits, which is why we considered feedback from nutrition experts, program operators, students, and others on how to balance taste and nutrition when developing the updates. For example, the added sugars reductions will be gradually phased in across multiple school years to allow students’ tastes to adapt to the changes.

Schools across the country are successfully serving meals that are nutritious and appetizing. USDA encourages schools to consider best practices such as student taste tests, farm to school activities, allowing students the choice to decline some of the food offered, salad bars, share tables, student advisory committees, and nutrition education efforts to help increase consumption of nutritious school meals and reduce food waste.

When will these changes be implemented?

USDA has taken a gradual, multi-year approach to implementing updates to the nutrition requirements. Schools are not required to make any menu changes until school year 2025-26 (July 1, 2025), at the earliest.

But as early as July 1, 2024, which is the beginning of school year 2024-25, schools can choose to use updated menu flexibilities to select foods and develop menus that cater to student preferences. See the implementation timeline for further details.

Will provisions in the Agriculture Appropriations Act passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by the President in March 2024 affect updates to child nutrition program meals?

The Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act is the bill from Congress that funds USDA through Sept. 30, 2024. A few provisions in this law affect child nutrition programs.

  • Milk: Under the Appropriations Act, schools must be permitted to serve low-fat or fat-free flavored milk as part of a reimbursable meal in the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program. Flavored milk must be allowed for participants ages 6 and older in the Child and Adult Care Food Program.

    The milk updates made by the final rule are consistent with the Appropriations Act. All K-12 schools may continue to offer fat-free and low-fat milk, both flavored and unflavored. Added sugar product-based limits for flavored varieties of milk must be implemented by school year 2025-26. Additionally, CACFP operators may continue to serve both flavored and unflavored milk to participants ages 6 and older.
     

  • Sodium: Under the Appropriations Act, current school meals sodium limits may be maintained through school year 2026-27 and USDA may not require schools to reduce sodium to limits lower than the Target 2 requirements set in 2012 for school breakfast and school lunch.

    The sodium updates made by the final rule are consistent with the Appropriations Act. Updated sodium requirements for school meals include a single sodium reduction of approximately 10 percent at breakfast and 15 percent at lunch, set to begin in school year 2027-28. These updates bring sodium limits down to the exact limits that were previously referred to as the Target 2 limits, issued in 2012.
     

  • Vegetables at breakfast: Under the Appropriations Act, for school year 2024-25, schools have the option to offer any vegetables in place of fruits at breakfast with no requirements to serve vegetables from specific subgroups.

    The vegetables at breakfast provision in the final rule is not fully consistent with the Appropriations Act. Under the final rule, schools choosing to substitute vegetables for fruits at breakfast on two or more days per school week are required to offer vegetables from at least two different subgroups. Therefore, for school year 2024-25, schools may offer any vegetable in place of fruit at breakfast. USDA continues to encourage program operators to include a variety of vegetables at breakfast when using this optional menu planning flexibility to expose children to the nutrients that come from a variety of vegetables.

How will USDA support schools to meet the updated nutrition requirements?

Since 2021, USDA has invested more than $5 billion to support school nutrition– from local farms to students’ plates and all throughout the supply chain. USDA remains committed to providing schools the support they need to continue serving children nutritious and appealing meals – now and throughout the gradual, phased-in implementation of these updates:

  • USDA has invested $100 million to establish the Healthy Meals Incentives Initiative to improve the nutritional quality of school meals through food systems transformation, school food authority recognition and technical assistance, the generation and sharing of innovative ideas and tested practices, and grants to schools and others in the school food supply chain.
  • In Fiscal Year (FY) 2024, USDA will offer $10 million in Equipment Assistance Grants to support schools purchase new and updated kitchen equipment. This is in addition to the $381 million we have provided for equipment purchases since FY 2010.
  • USDA’s Team Nutrition provides resources, tools, and grants to help schools engage students in learning about healthy eating and trying new foods. USDA has invested more than $32 million in Team Nutrition Training Grants since 2014.
  • USDA’s Patrick Leahy Farm to School Program makes local food and agriculture education available to child nutrition program sites through grants, research, and technical assistance and training. Since FY 2013, USDA has awarded more than $84 million through the Patrick Leahy Farm to School Grant Program, funding more than 1,100 projects throughout all 50 states, the District of Columbia, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and Puerto Rico. To date, Farm to School Grants have reached over 28 million students in nearly 63,000 schools. Awardees for the FY2024 farm to school grants will be announced this summer.
  • USDA has established a cooperative agreement with the Urban School Food Alliance (USFA) to improve the school food procurement process for all stakeholders. USFA will take a 3-phase approach to provide training and tools to school districts that will help them purchase high-quality foods, while keeping costs low, all while pushing for more efficient and modernized school food purchasing models that support local economies.
  • USDA partners with the Institute of Child Nutrition (ICN) to provide tailored trainings for school nutrition professionals.
  • The ICN’s Child Nutrition Sharing Site (CNSS) is a centralized website where child nutrition professionals can store, organize, manage, and share knowledge and resources developed at the local or state level. It also provides access to resources that support current federal regulations, policies, and guidance.

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