Posted by on February 7, 2023 1:46 pm
Categories: News The Hill

School meal nutrition update 2.0: How to get it right

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack’s recent announcement proposing updates to school meal nutrition standards brought back memories. After all, Secretary Vilsack was running USDA when it ushered in significant updates to those standards years ago during the Obama administration. Those initial updates benefitted tens of millions of children and their families over the past decade. 

How will the sequel compare to the original? 

A new study from Healthy Eating Research (HER), funded by my organization, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, finds that fully aligning school meal nutrition standards with the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) would make school meals more nutritious, increase student participation in school meal programs and help children do well in the classroom. The proposed rule from USDA would, over the course of several school years, get us much closer to that goal; the final rule will hopefully reflect full alignment across the board. 

But regardless of what’s on paper, schools need more help to put both current and future standards into practice. While implementation of the new standards won’t begin until the 2024-25 school year, policymakers should increase investments in schools and families now so all children receive the healthy meals they need to grow and thrive.

In 2012, it had been more than 15 years since nutrition standards for school meals had been updated. The changes made then — including more fruits, vegetables and whole grains along with limits on saturated fats and sodium — increased the nutritional quality of meals by more than 40 percent, with student participation highest in schools that served the healthiest meals. Without the standards, obesity prevalence among children living in poverty — disproportionately children of color — would have been 47 percent higher. 

Despite this record, there have been multiple efforts in recent years to weaken rather than strengthen the standards. The new HER study shows the promise of moving in the other direction. HER convened a national advisory panel of school nutrition experts for a health impact assessment (HIA), a unique type of research that offers a prospective glimpse at a policy’s outcomes prior to enactment. The research team looked at the impact of matching school meal standards with the 2020-25 DGAs: specifically, by making 100 percent of grains whole-grain rich; instituting new limits across the meal plan on added sugars and strengthening current limits on sodium — both of which when consumed in excess can increase the risk of heart disease and other health conditions — and curbing the amount of processed meats, which can also have deleterious health consequences

Following an extensive literature review, the research team reached a clear conclusion: “implementation of strong nutrition standards aligning with the 2020-2025 DGA recommendations will result in healthier meals and positive outcomes for child nutrition and health.” Specifically, the HIA found strong evidence (its highest evidence rating) that robust nutrition standards for school meals positively affect the types of food served, student participation in meal programs and students’ overall diet quality over a 24-hour period. The HIA also found moderate evidence (its second-highest evidence rating) that the heightened nutrition standards and resulting changes in student consumption of school meals have a positive effect on food security, academic performance and school food service revenue.

Given the clear benefits to children and schools, USDA’s final rule should ensure that school meal nutrition standards are in sync with the latest DGA guidance. A quicker implementation timeline — under USDA’s proposal, limits on added sugars across the meal plan would not take effect until the 2027-28 school year, and final sodium limits not until 2029-30 — would also be beneficial. A public comment period on the proposed rule that runs through April 10 provides an important opportunity to help shape the final rule. 

But stronger nutrition standards are only one component of successful school meal programs. Right now, many programs nationwide are hurting. For most of the pandemic, school meals were free for every child, regardless of family income; the recent expiration of that policy has led to an explosion of student meal debt. Both the percentage of schools participating in school meal programs and the number of students receiving those meals have declined significantly since last year. Combined with lower revenue, high food prices and ongoing supply chain and workforce challenges, many school food service programs that lost billions of dollars during COVID-19 are struggling to fulfill their critical missions. 

Beyond nutrition standards, there are several other steps policymakers can and should take right now to make school meals more accessible. At the top of the list should be making school meals free again for all children. The many health, economic and academic benefits associated with this policy would be particularly beneficial for children (nearly 60 percent of whom are children of color) whose family incomes are just above the federal income eligibility cutoff for free meals. Some states have already passed legislation to that effect and several others will hopefully soon join them. 

With 25 million Americans currently experiencing food insecurity, it would be ideal if Congress worked with USDA to reinstitute free meals nationally. If that falls short, USDA should do everything within its authority to expand eligibility for the Community Eligibility Provision, under which schools with a certain percentage of children below the federal poverty threshold can serve free meals to all students. Congress can also increase school meal reimbursement rates — reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act is long overdue — and provide additional dollars for schools to upgrade cafeteria equipment.

Given all that has happened since then, the previous round of school meal nutrition standard updates feels more like a century rather than a decade ago. But a core principle remains intact: Healthy school meals make an enormous difference for millions of children. USDA’s final rule should reflect that principle by ensuring school meal nutrition standards are in complete alignment with the DGAs as expeditiously as possible, and policymakers should provide schools with the resources necessary to implement them successfully. Our children’s health depends on it.    

Jamie Bussel is a senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Twitter: @jbussel

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