The new rules—which mark the first time sugar has been capped in school meals—will first target particularly sugary foods, including breakfast cereal, yogurt, desserts and flavored milk. The rules are aimed at improving kids’ health and reducing the prevalence of childhood obesity, which federal panels have said can be linked to eating too much added sugar.
Starting with the next school year, the proposed rules would be implemented in stages over the next seven years to cap the amount of added sugar typically found in processed foods such as soda and cereal as well as honey and sugar itself. They don’t include sugars naturally found in foods such as fruit and unflavored milk.
With salt, the rules will slowly bring down weekly limits over time. Schools will still be required to emphasize foods made with whole grains.
“These standards are really designed to provide a nutritious meal because of the significance that meal has to learning, to healthcare, to the future of this country,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters Friday. “Many children aren’t getting the nutrition they need, and diet-related diseases are on the rise.”
Public health and nutrition groups welcomed the new limits to added sugars, but some said they were disappointed to not see greater reductions in salt. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says high sodium consumption can raise blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
“While it’s a step in the right direction, it’s not enough to get to our destination,” said Peter Lurie, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a food and health watchdog organization.
Republicans said they would review the proposal, but raised concerns about its feasibility.
“Claiming to be science-based doesn’t mean USDA can put unworkable standards in place that make it harder for local school personnel to feed kids,” House Committee on Education and the Workforce Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R., N.C.) and Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas, the top Republican on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, said in a joint statement.
The new school meal rules arrived at a time of heightened scrutiny around children’s health and obesity. Last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that physicians offerweight-loss drugs for children 12 and older with obesity, alongside lifestyle and behavioral counseling.
About a fifth of children in the U.S. are considered obese, according to the most recent data from the CDC.
More than 15 million children eat breakfast at school and close to 30 million children consume lunch there, according to the USDA.
Mr. Vilsack said that he struggled with his own weight in fourth grade and was taunted by a teacher who suggested he couldn’t solve a math problem at the board because of his weight.
“And so I’m particularly sensitive about this issue of nutrition and children and making sure that we do it right for kids,” he said.
School meals are considered the best source of nutritious food for many children. A 2021 study from Tufts University found that schools provided the highest percentage of nutritious meals, compared with meals from restaurants and grocery stores.
Agriculture Department officials said that while meeting with parents, teachers and health professionals, they heard repeated concerns in particular about the amount of added sugar in breakfasts offered by schools.
“That’s probably where we’ll see most of the change,” said USDA Deputy Under Secretary Stacy Dean. She said most schools were already close to the added sugars limit at lunchtime.
The School Nutrition Association, a nonprofit that represents school nutrition professionals nationwide, said most schools will have a hard time meeting the new guidelines because they struggle to get items that meet specialized standards, including lower-sugar cereals and granola bars.
The USDA had relaxed many requirements during the pandemic, when supply chain disruptions made it difficult for schools to procure some foods.
Mr. Vilsack said schools were being given plenty of time to meet the new requirements, which won’t begin to go into effect until the 2024-2025 school year, with full implementation of all standards by the 2029-2030 school year.
One area still in flux is what kind of milk should be offered at school meals, with officials proposing two options.
One would allow flavored milk to be served only to high school students. The other option would continue the current rules, which allow all schools to serve both flavored and unflavored skim and low-fat milk—but flavored milks would have to fall under the new added-sugar limits. Schools aren’t allowed to serve whole milk.
“While we are pleased that this proposed rule continues to make dairy central to child nutrition, we are concerned with USDA’s ongoing efforts to propose limitations to milk and dairy in school meals,” Michael Dykes, president of the International Dairy Foods Association, said in a news release.
USDA noted that a recent analysis found that flavored skim milk was the leading source of added sugars at both school breakfast and lunch.
The Agriculture Department is required by law to set standards for food and beverages served to children at school that align with the country’s dietary guidelines.
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