|USDA’s school meal programs -- the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP) -- serve nutritious meals to 30 million children each day to support their growth, learning, and overall health. Working closely with school meal stakeholders, USDA is taking multi-step approach to update the school meal nutrition standards to help schools build back from the pandemic and set children up for success.|
Updating the School Meal Nutrition Standards
By law, school meals must be based on the goals of the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Therefore, USDA sets school meal nutrition standards to ensure that schools offer students the right balance of fruits, vegetables, low-fat or fat-free milk, whole grains, and protein foods.
Over the past decade, school nutrition professionals, the school food industry, and other partners have made incredible strides in strengthening the nutrition of school meals. USDA is committed to building on that progress to ensure school meals continue to provide the very best for our children. (See: Ten Reasons to Build Back Even Better with School Meals). We are working hand-in-hand with schools, parents, industry, and other partners to update the school meal nutrition standards in a way that is practical and works for the long term.
For background information on the school meal programs and school meal nutrition standards, see:
- How do the school meal programs work?
USDA administers the school meal programs in partnership with state agencies and reimburses schools for the nutritionally balanced meals they provide to kids at a free, reduced-price, or paid rate.
- What are the requirements for school meals?
In order to be reimbursed, schools must provide meals that meet the federal nutrition standards. Decisions about the specific foods they serve and how to prepare them are made by local school food authorities. In addition to meeting the nutrition standards, schools must adhere to other program rules, such as requirements for tracking the number of meals served.
- What are the benefits of school meals?
School meals are a powerful tool for fighting food insecurity while protecting the future of our nation's children by getting them the nutrition they need. Research has found that school meals are the healthiest meals kids receive each day. Nutritious breakfast and lunch are essential to students' well-being and success in the classroom and have a long-lasting positive impact on the development and growth of children.
- What are school meal nutrition standards?
By law, school meals must be based on the goals of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Therefore, the school meal nutrition standards require schools to offer students the right balance of fruits, vegetables, low-fat or fat-free milk, whole grains, and protein foods. In 2012, USDA revised the school meal nutrition standards to include more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and decrease the amount of sodium and trans fats. The school meal nutrition standards also defined calorie minimums and maximums. Research shows these school meal nutrition standards have had a positive and significant effect on the nutritional quality of school meals over the last decade.
- How have school meal nutrition standards changed over the past decade?
Starting in the 2012-13 school year, schools began implementing updated school meal nutrition standards that included increased fruit, vegetable, and whole grain requirements, for example, as well as targets for sodium and calorie levels. Overall, most schools successfully implemented the school meal nutrition standards and found them helpful in providing nutritious meals to their students. However, implementation of the standards related to milk, whole grains, and sodium was delayed due to administrative and legislative changes.
Beginning in March 2020, Congress gave USDA the ability to provide a broad range of flexibilities in the school meal programs including adjusting the nutrition requirements to ensure schools could continue serving healthy meals despite the challenges of the pandemic. Schools tackled every obstacle head on with a tireless commitment to ensuring kids had healthy food to eat.
The transitional standards final rule establishes standards for milk, whole grains, and sodium for school years 2022-23 and 2023-24 to give schools and other partners a clear path forward while USDA works with school meal program stakeholders to develop long-term standards. A comparison between the transitional standards and previous standards is available here
- Why did USDA issue transitional standards?
This rule responds to the needs of schools as they recover from the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, while also taking steps to continue to improve child nutrition through school meals. By law, USDA is required to update school nutrition standards based on recommendations of the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans. However, we've heard from schools and the food industry that they need time to implement changes to the school nutrition standards, especially given the ongoing impacts of the pandemic. This rule will provide a transition period by establishing nutrition standards for milk, whole grains, and sodium for the next two school years while USDA works with schools, industry, families, and other partners to develop long-term standards to be in place by SY 2024-25.
- What changes do the transitional standards make to the current school meal nutrition standards?
The transitional standards final rule changes the 2012 nutrition standards for school years 2022-2023 and 2023-2024 in three areas:
- Milk: Schools may offer flavored low-fat (1%) milk; schools are also required to offer unflavored milk. The 2012 standards limited flavored milk to nonfat only.
- Whole Grains: At least 80% of the grains served in school lunch and breakfast per week must be whole grain-rich, which means they contain at least 50% whole grains and the rest is enriched grains. The 2012 standards required 100% of grains served in school lunch and breakfast to be whole grain-rich.
- Sodium: For SY 2022-2023, the sodium limit for school lunch and breakfast will remain at the limit that was in place prior to the pandemic (Target 1). For SY 2023-2024, the limit will decrease by 10% for school lunch only. The 2012 standards required a more significant decrease.
All other school nutrition standards – including fruit and vegetable requirements and overall calorie ranges – will remain the same as the 2012 standards.
It is important to note that during COVID, USDA has provided various flexibilities in the school meal programs to ensure schools could continue to serve meals during the public health emergency and related supply chain disruptions. While USDA has encouraged schools to meet the meal standards as closely as possible to ensure kids get nutritious meals that support their health and development, schools are not being penalized if they are unable to fully meet the requirements at this time.
- What comes next?
USDA has been engaging in extensive stakeholder engagement to inform a proposed rule on longer-term school meal nutrition standards. Our goal is to have a permanent final rule in place for school year 2024-25.
School Nutrition Standards Research
- Lunches Consumed from School Are the Most Nutritious
- Progress Toward Implementing Updated Nutrition Standards
- School Meals Are More Nutritious After Updated Nutrition Standards
- The Cost of Producing School Meals Has Increased
- Updated Nutrition Standards Posed Challenges but Achieved Underlying Goals
Videos and Webinars
- Culinary Videos
- Institute of Child Nutrition Webinars
- Sodium Reduction Resources, Training and Webinars
- Video: Introduction to the School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study, SY2014-15
- Webinar: Transitional Standards for Milk, Sodium and Whole Grains (for industry partners)
- Webinar: Transitional Standards for Milk, Sodium and Whole Grains (for state agencies and school food authorities)