A month after the USDA proposed new rules to make school meals healthier, hundreds of school nutrition directors will come to Washington next week to tell lawmakers to reject the stricter standards.
The proposed standards would bring school meals into closer alignment with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans by capping — for the first time — the amount of added sugar in school meals, while further limiting sodium and increasing the amount of whole grains served. Many public health groups, such as the American Heart Association and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, support the proposed rules as a key way to improve children’s health and stem the burden of chronic disease.
But the School Nutrition Association (SNA), which represents school food workers nationwide, argues that stricter rules will be a difficult challenge for schools, since they still face labor shortages and supply chain disruptions due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and the avian flu epidemic.
“Additional rules are just not feasible for schools right now,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, the SNA’s director of media relations. Interim rules cutting sodium more modestly than in the USDA’s new proposal take effect in July, and in a recent survey, SNA members “overwhelmingly” said they were not prepared to meet even those standards, Pratt-Heavner said. “They are very concerned about the availability of foods that meet the targets and are acceptable to students.”
While cooking more foods from scratch could be a way to make school meals healthier, it is also more labor-intensive. And schools are struggling to staff their kitchens, Pratt-Heavner said — 92 percent of her members surveyed reported labor shortages. “They have to compete with local fast-food restaurants and food service establishments that, quite frankly, have a better budget for increasing salaries.”
While acknowledging these challenges, Meghan Maroney, federal child nutrition programs campaign manager at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), said the data don’t support the idea that stricter standards are unachievable.
In a recent assessment, the CSPI looked at the nutritional quality of more than 2,000 food products sold to school meals programs in the 2020-21 school year. It found that many products on the market met or exceeded the current standards for whole grains and sodium, which suggests that food companies can make healthier foods that kids will eat, said Maroney.
“It is going to take a lot of work, but we can do this,” she said.
Maroney said that even the proposed sodium targets the SNA is calling unrealistic are too high. Under those standards, children under age 8 would still get 83 percent of their daily recommended sodium if they eat school lunch and breakfast. “This is an issue of heart health and long-term health for children,” she said.
But the SNA cautions that cutting too much salt and sugar from school foods could unintentionally undermine broader public health goals. Tufts University researchers have found that, on average, students eat healthier meals at school than at home, in restaurants, or at grocery stores. If kids don’t like the meals at school, they may bring unhealthier foods from home or elsewhere. The SNA said school meal participation has dropped more than 20 percent since Congress failed to renew the waivers that made meals free to virtually all public school students during the pandemic. And while that drop is due mostly to cost, school food advocates don’t want to see further declines.
“The more stringent the standards, the more menu items you’re going to see disappear from the menu, and fewer kids will choose to eat,” Pratt-Heavner said. “We hear time and time again that even food-insecure kids will pass up the school lunch if it doesn’t appeal.”
Food manufacturers have already scaled back the range of products they offer to schools since the pandemic hit, said Brian Hofmeier of JTM Food Group, a company that processes USDA commodities into products sold to schools. JTM Foods is a corporate member of the SNA.
When schools closed during the pandemic, many suppliers shifted sales to the booming grocery market, Hofmeier said. And once schools reopened, things didn’t reset. Some companies chose not to resume selling to schools, since schools are a smaller market than grocery stores or restaurants, and they have specific nutritional requirements. Other companies, to meet the increased demand once schools reopened and began offering free meals to most students, started producing larger quantities of a smaller range of products. “All of us have reduced our SKUs in order to become leaner and meaner,” he said.
Making products that meet school nutrition standards can be much more challenging and expensive than making the products sold at grocery stores and restaurants, Hofmeier said. Semolina pasta, for example, isn’t considered “whole-grain rich” by federal standards. But making pasta that counts as “whole-grain rich” and is palatable often requires whole eggs and egg whites. That raises the cost, Hoffmeier said, especially with the war in Ukraine and the ongoing bird flu outbreak.
Cutting sodium is an even bigger issue, he said, though the challenge there is less about supply chains and more about kids’ tastes. His company has been working on macaroni and cheese that would meet the sodium caps the proposed standards would mandate by 2029. While JTM has already reduced its mac and cheese’s sodium by more than a quarter, Hoffmeier said it’s hard to see how he can cut it further and still have something kids will eat. “I reduced [sodium] to the level they’re talking about, and I made orange wallpaper paste,” he said. “It was a horrible product, horrible.”
Hofmeier said he thinks the USDA’s timeline for sodium reductions is too fast, and that the shift should be over a “generational” scale of 20 years or so, so that students’ palates can gradually adjust.
Maroney, however, said the USDA is already investing in incentives to get schools to increase the nutrition of their offerings through programs such as the Healthy Meals Incentives Initiative, a $100 million grant program for small and rural districts. And she said many schools have taken it upon themselves to continue to improve the nutritional quality of meals, even after the Trump administration rolled standards back.
She said it is “incredibly unfortunate” that the SNA and public health organizations are at odds over the nutrition standards, since they are in alignment on other issues, such as making school meals free for all students, regardless of family income, and increasing funding for school food programs. She said it is “uncomfortable and hard” when school nutrition directors are hearing conflicting messages from the SNA and public health groups.
“We want the whole field to work together on this and find solutions that will better support kids,” Maroney said. “I wish it didn’t have to be so us against them.”