As schools reopen, the fight over nutrition standards resumes, with salt and sugar still in the crosshairs

The pandemic hasn’t only left American families without enough to eat — it also has created what Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently called a “nutrition insecurity” crisis. Among children in particular, remote learning has reduced access to school meals and physical education classes. As a result, childhood obesity has soared, especially among low-income kids of color.

But even if school food offers a far healthier alternative to what many kids get at home, school nutrition standards are out of line with the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA). That’s because they haven’t been updated since 2010, when the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act — former First Lady Michelle Obama’s overhaul of school nutrition standards that mandated more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and reduced sodium — was passed. As Congress moves forward with a long-overdue Child Nutrition Reauthorization, lawmakers and advocates are sparring over what changes, if any, should be made to the food kids eat at school.

Advocates, including 36 health and education organizations, are urging Sens. Debbie Stabenow, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and John Boozman, the committee’s ranking Republican, to update the Obama-era guidelines to reflect the most recent “science-based nutrition standards.” The School Nutrition Association (SNA), which represents 50,000 school nutrition professionals, is calling for flexibility to allow districts to shape menus based on the kids they serve and the capacity of their cafeterias.

The Obama guidelines have helped schools offer healthier food to American kids, narrowing the access gap between wealthy and disadvantaged areas and reducing obesity among low-income children. But the Trump administration and the pandemic both struck blows to nutrition standards. In March 2017, former Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue pledged to “make school meals great again” by giving districts “great flexibility” over what ends up on kids’ plates. In 2018, the USDA weakened nutrition standards further, authorizing salt levels in school meals that exceeded those recommended by the federal dietary guidelines and allowing schools to serve fewer whole grains.

A federal court struck down Trump’s rollbacks in April 2020. But due to logistical and financial challenges created by the pandemic, districts can still apply for waivers that exempt them from meeting the 2010 standards. So as America’s schools chart a course out of the pandemic, the meals they serve may not only fall short of federal dietary guidelines, they may also not align with the standards established by Congress a decade ago.

Among other objectives, the 2010 standards sought to gradually reduce sodium levels in meals, outlining three targets, the most ambitious of which would cap sodium at 740 milligrams by July 1, 2022. Before the pandemic, schools were operating under the second target, which capped sodium in meals at 1,080 milligrams.

Colin Schwartz, deputy director of federal affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, supports updating the standards but says the “top priority is to get schools back on track for meeting existing nutrition standards.”

As vaccinations permit more schools to return to in-person learning, Schwartz stressed the need to update school nutrition standards to meet the current dietary guidelines — and enact new restrictions on added sugar, which the Obama-era standards failed to address. A recent study, based on data from the 2014-2015 school year, showed that nine out of 10 school breakfasts, and nearly seven out of 10 lunches, exceeded DGA limits on added sugar.

Katie Wilson, executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance, shares Schwartz’s urgency about limiting sugar. “The USDA has refused to address sugar in school meals,” she said. “We’re going crazy on cutting sodium, but we’re not reducing sugar. It’s time for people to stop saying it’s not a problem.” Even within the bounds of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, schools can serve what Bettina Elias Siegel, who writes about childhood nutrition, calls “sugar bomb” breakfasts, some of which contain a striking 50 grams of sugar. (The American Heart Association recommends a maximum of 25 grams of added sugar per day for kids ages 2-18.)

But the School Nutrition Association and many congressional Republicans — including Sen. Boozman — are adamant that schools need more flexibility when it comes to feeding kids, especially on the heels of the pandemic.

In an interview, Boozman strongly backed maintaining pandemic-era flexibilities. School nutrition professionals, he told FERN, “are very concerned about going back to an even more rigid standard,” adding that tougher standards will “make it a real challenge to prepare food and actually acquire food from distributors, much less to get the children to eat it.”

The pandemic’s blow to school meal participation not only harmed kids, it hurt school nutrition programs, which lost $2.1 billion in federal revenue during the first nine months of the pandemic. “As you start really ratcheting up standards, you have to think about cost-effectiveness,” Boozman said. “There is a limited amount of money that a school is going to spend.” Flexibility, he argued, will avoid a “one-size-fits-all” standard that might make sense for some districts but not others.

Sen. Stabenow expressed her commitment at a March hearing to “passing a strong, bipartisan child nutrition bill that helps our kids get healthier — not hungrier.” She did not respond directly to FERN’s questions about updates to the 2010 standards or maintaining pandemic-era flexibilities.

Stricter standards, critics say, will further depress student participation, complicating schools’ efforts to make up revenue lost during the pandemic. Dianne Pratt-Heavner of the School Nutrition Association — which, after lobbying for the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, allied with Republicans several years later in calling for waivers — pointed to “regional and cultural preferences” that make low-salt and whole grain foods a tough sell. “Our members have consistently asked for flexibility on just a few items for the menu,” she said. “Particularly right now, when there’s so much need across our country for healthy school meals, we want to make sure kids are eating the meals being offered.”

The most restrictive sodium level under the 2010 law, she said, would limit menu options, such as the number of low-fat cheeses and sandwich meats cafeterias can offer. That might discourage students from eating vegetable-rich options like salads, she added, which often include a cheese or meat topping to increase protein.

USDA data and numerous studies, however, undercut the notion that rigorous dietary standards depress participation or fuel “plate waste.” In fact, one study found that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act increased consumption of fruits and vegetables; another concluded that revised meal policies even reduced food waste. And in a 2016 survey of 489 school nutrition directors conducted by the Pew Charitable Trusts, 84 percent of program directors reported rising or stable revenue following the adoption of the 2010 standards.

“Some of the conservatives in Congress claim that if there’s any reduction in school meal participation, it’s due to updated nutrition standards, and there’s simply no evidence of that,” said Schwartz of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Other strategies — like giving students more time to eat, including them in recipe planning, and taste testing — are far more effective in making sure kids clean their plates than allowing foods that are high in sodium and sugar, he said. And while some menu items will inevitably “be less tasty to kids than others,” the challenge isn’t insurmountable. “We’ve seen a lot of schools that have been successful in getting kids to eat whole grains, so we know what can be done.”

Wilson, of the Urban School Food Alliance, likened the SNA’s focus on flexibility to “giving up.” “That’s just quitting,” said Wilson, who served as the SNA’s president from 2008-09. While she acknowledged that schools will need time to adapt to updated standards, she argued that “blanket flexibilities” are not necessary when the vast majority of schools managed to meet the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act standards prior to the pandemic. Congress should update the standards, she said, and assist schools in making the transition by the 2022-23 school year.

“We can talk about when schools can meet the next sodium reduction level rather than having a debate about letting them not meet it at all,” added Schwartz.

Marion Nestle, professor emerita of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University and the author of numerous books about food politics, supports more stringent standards on sodium, sugar, and whole grains. But, she says, actually improving kids’ health will require a fundamental rethinking of what ends up on their plates.

“The problem with the standards is that they’re nutrient-based, not food-based,” she said. “They talk about fat, sugar, and salt, they talk about fiber and individual nutrients, when really what they should be talking about is foods.”

The 2010 standards, Nestle said, still allow for processed food products that extensive evidence shows encourage overeating. “What we have are products that are reformulated, with just enough salt, sugar, and whatever else taken out of them so that they qualify.”

New standards, she said, should be accompanied by resources that allow schools to have “a cooking staff and a kitchen, starting with real foods, produced on-site, with people who can really get to know the kids, using methods to teach them about different flavors and textures” and helping them develop long-term habits.

And while additional funding plays an important role in getting there, strong relationships between cafeteria staff and students are essential. “In schools where the food service staff knows the names of the kids, the kids are going to be eating the food,” she said. “It’s not impossible. A good school meals program is a beautiful thing.”