The new final rule, scheduled to be published in the Federal Register on Feb. 14, is described in a fact sheet, Child Nutrition Programs: Transitional Standards for Milk, Whole Grains, and Sodium. The standards include:
- School and childcare providers receiving federal reimbursement for meal programs will be allowed to serve participants (ages 6 and older) flavored low-fat (1%) milk in addition to nonfat flavored milk and nonfat or low-fat unflavored milk.
- At least 80% of the grains served in school lunch and breakfast each week must be whole grains.
- The weekly sodium limit for school lunch and breakfast will remain at the current level in school year 2022-23 but then be reduced by 10% in school year 2023-24 to align with FDA guidance.
- All other nutrition standards, including fruit and vegetable requirements, will remain the same as the 2012 standards.
The USDA is required to update school nutrition standards based on recommendations from the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The USDA previously updated the school nutrition standards in 2012 in a rule that has largely been seen as detrimental to dairy.
Under the Obama administration, the USDA eliminated low-fat flavored milk as an option in the school meal and a la carte programs. Consumption of school milk declined, as did overall participation in the school lunch program. According to the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), 1.1 million fewer school students drank milk with their lunch during the first two years of the new rule.
In 2017, the Trump administration published an interim rule allowing schools to serve low-fat (1%) flavored milk in school breakfast and lunch programs. Under the interim rule, a school needed to demonstrate either a decline in student milk consumption or an increase in school milk waste to receive a waiver.
In 2019, a petition drive to make whole milk available for school children was circulated by Grassroots Citizens for Whole Milk for Healthy Kids. At last count, a petition website estimated about 24,610 signatures had been gathered. The Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act was introduced in Congress in 2019 and again in 2021 but did not advance to votes.
The 2012 rule also reduced sodium levels allowed in school meals. The International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) has sought an exemption for cheeses under that rule, rolling back standards to those established under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The IDFA contended overly stringent sodium targets could effectively remove cheese from school lunch menus since sodium is necessary in cheesemaking. Without an exemption, cheese product quality, food safety and other critical product attributes would be sacrificed. The new rule will delay reduced sodium targets for schools for school year 2022-23 and establish a new 10% reduction target for 2023-24.
In announcing the rule, revised from one advanced initially by the USDA in 2020, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said research shows that school children receive their healthiest meals of the day at school. An estimated 30 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP) each day.
With the new rule effective through the end of the 2023-34 school year, the USDA is also planning to engage with school meal stakeholders to establish long-term nutrition standards beginning in school year 2024-25.
Jim Mulhern, head of NMPF, approved the rule.
“Ensuring kids have access to the nutrients they need to grow and thrive is a top priority for dairy,” he said
Michael Dykes, IDFA president and CEO, supported the USDA’s final rule, saying it “cleared up years of confusion,” while giving schools necessary flexibilities in administering school meal programs.
Dykes noted that a 2020 federal Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report found 79% of 9- to 13-year-olds were not meeting the recommended intake of dairy foods and thereby underconsuming a variety of nutrients during childhood and adolescence, including potassium, calcium and vitamin D.
“Moreover, it has been proven time and again in schools across the country that when flavored milks are available, kids not only drink more milk – they are more likely to participate in the school meal programs and waste less food, thus truly benefiting from dairy’s important vitamins and nutrients,” Dykes said.
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