With an emphasis on sweetened goods like cereals, yogurt, flavored milk, and morning pastries, U.S. agriculture officials on Friday recommended new nutrition rules for school meals, including the first limits on added sugars.
By 2029, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s proposal also aims to drastically reduce sodium consumption in schoolchildren’s meals while loosening restrictions on whole-grain items.
In the program that provides breakfast to more than 15 million children and lunch to close to 30 million children every day, the objective is to promote nutrition and match with U.S. dietary guidelines, according to Vilsack.
The meals children can eat at school have the highest nutritional content of any meals they can eat outside.
The first restrictions on added sugars would be necessary, starting with high-sugar items such as sweetened cereals, yogurts, and flavored milk in the 2025–2026 academic year.
For instance, the plan stipulated that an 8-ounce carton of chocolate milk could only include 10 grams of sugar.
Now, several well-known flavored kinds of milk have double that amount. Additionally, the plan prohibits eating sweet-grain treats like muffins or doughnuts more than twice a week for breakfast.
Added sugars in school meals would be restricted to less than 10% of the weekly calories for breakfasts and lunches by the fall of 2027.
By the fall of 2029, the idea would also lower the salt content of school meals by 30%.
They’d gradually be diminished to align with federal guidelines, which recommend Americans aged 14 and older limit sodium to about 2,300 milligrams a day, with less for younger children.
For example, levels would decrease from the current average of 1,280 mg of salt per lunch for students in grades 9 through 12 to approximately 935 milligrams.
In contrast, 1,500 mg of sodium may be present in a standard turkey sandwich with cheese and mustard.
Health professionals say reducing salt and sugar intake can lower children’s chance of developing diseases, including obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and other issues that frequently persist into adulthood.
A 280-page booklet outlining the concept received mixed reviews.
The adjustments are “needed to assist America’s children in leading healthier lives,” according to Katie Wilson, executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance.
However, Diane Pratt-Heavner, a trade group’s representative, claimed that school lunches are already healthier than they were ten years ago and that further rules are a hardship, particularly for small and rural school districts.
She declared that “school feeding programs are nearing breaking point.” “These programs are merely ill-prepared to comply with new rules.”
Vilsack stressed that the plan introduces adjustments gradually over the following six years to give educational institutions and food producers time to adapt to the new requirements.
To shorten the timescale, he stated, “we expect that many school districts and food suppliers would take independent action.”
According to Courtney Gaines, president of the Sugar Association, the proposal ignores the “many functional roles” that sugar serves in food in addition to sweetness and promotes the adoption of sugar alternatives that have not been thoroughly examined in children.
According to the new regulations, sugar alternatives are acceptable.
Agriculture officials are collecting input on a proposal that would maintain the requirement that 80% of all grains distributed in a week must be whole grains as part of the strategy.
However, it would permit schools to vary their menus by serving non-whole grain items once a week, including tortillas made of white flour.
Another approach proposes saving chocolate and other flavored milk for high school students and offering unflavored nonfat and low-fat milk to the youngest children.
The plan’s 60-day public comment period begins on February 7.
According to Shiriki Kumanyika, a community health expert at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health, children won’t notice some of the changes: “They’ll see things that they enjoy eating, but those meals will be better,” she said.