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school meals

Federal government announces more stringent nutrition standards for school meals

Feb. 3, 2023
The guidelines will limit added sugars and reduce sodium levels in food served to students.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced more stringent nutrition standards for school meals, reviving efforts to improve the health of millions of public school students in the face of a rise in childhood obesity and other diet-related diseases.

The Washington Post reports that the new rules, which will be rolled out gradually over the next few years, will limit added sugars, including in flavored milks. They will also reduce sodium levels and emphasize products that are primarily whole grain.

The new guidelines are part of the National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, which was developed in response to the worsening problem of childhood obesity.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 1 in 5 children and adolescents are affected by obesity. That’s about 14.7 million children, or almost 20% of all those ages 2 to 19.

The new effort echoes actions by the Obama administration, which required school cafeterias to increase offerings of fruits and vegetables, serve only skim or low-fat milk, and cut trans fat from the menu altogether. They also required dramatic cuts in sodium in school cafeteria food as well as increases in whole-grain offerings.

The Trump administration chipped away at those Obama-era rules, arguing that more healthful food was of no benefit if children didn’t like it.

The new guidelines will be rolled out gradually. In fall 2024, school offerings will have to include primarily whole-grain foods, with only occasional products containing less healthy refined grains such as those used in white pasta and white breads.

Industry groups are pushing back against these limits, arguing that school meal participation is already slipping and this will further discourage students from eating at school.

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