School Nutrition Association says go slow on nutrition overhaul

Next fall, the Biden administration will propose new nutrition standards for school meals, the first attempt to strengthen the rules since 2012. Health advocates are already starting to make their wish lists known—further lowering sodium, making meals more nutritious and, for the first time ever, capping the amount of added sugar in food served to students.

But, as school nutrition professionals from across the country gather this week for the School Nutrition Association (SNA) conference in Washington, they’ll be urging the USDA and members of Congress to avoid sweeping changes.

Research shows that school meals are already the healthiest meals that the average child  eats, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, the SNA’s director of media relations. The SNA is in favor of the interim school nutrition standards that the Biden administration issued in February. Those rules, which cover the 2022-2023 school year, are less stringent than the Obama-era guidelines but healthier than rules that were weakened under the Trump administration and then suspended during the pandemic.

“Our concern is about going further,” said Pratt-Heavner. School meals programs are already feeding far fewer kids than pre-pandemic, and Pratt-Heavner said the focus should be on increasing participation. The SNA is calling for long-term nutrition standards that will be both “acceptable” to students and also “achievable” by school food programs, which are still struggling with supply chain and staffing disruptions that won’t be easily resolved.

“These programs are facing what look to be very long term supply chain issues and labor issues. The labor shortages are really here to stay, and it does impact schools’ abilities to switch up the menu further,” Pratt-Heavner said.

But health advocates say the upcoming school nutrition reform is a long-overdue chance to tackle the problem of added sugar in school meals, a concern heightened by the increase in childhood obesity during the pandemic. In a January letter to the USDA, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the American Heart Association and the American Public Health Association urged the agency to set a limit for added sugars in school meals that would align with the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which say less than 10 percent of total calories should come from added sugars.

Capping the amount of sugar in school meals would be “a big challenge” for school feeding programs, Pratt-Heavner said, noting that school meals already have an overall calorie limit, and caps on sodium and fat.

Further reducing sodium would also be difficult, she said, since it entails more from-scratch cooking, which is difficult for schools because of the personnel and equipment required.

The SNA also wants more flexible guidelines for whole grains, she said. “Most every community has a few items where the schools are just struggling to find an acceptable, whole-grain rich version,” she said. Whole wheat biscuits are a tough sell in the South, as are whole wheat tortillas in the Southwest. And kids from many communities aren’t accustomed to eating brown rice.

The pandemic only compounded these problems, said Pratt-Heavner. Whole grain products have been harder to get; food manufacturers have streamlined offerings, and are less likely to make special items that are sold only to schools but not to grocery stores or restaurants.

The SNA’s top priority at its conference, which ends with a lobby day on Tuesday, is a one-year extension of the child nutrition waivers that relaxed a number of rules for school feeding programs during the pandemic. The waivers are set to expire on June 30.