Proposed K-12 nutrition guidance could significantly impact children’s long-term health outcomes

Even partial compliance with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s proposed updates to K-12 nutrition guidance would lead to overall reductions in short- and long-term health issues for participating students, according to a recent study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

At a time when one in four school meals are of poor nutritional quality, fully aligning school meals with these proposed standards could positively impact hundreds of thousands of children into their adulthood, with the added benefit of saving billions in lifetime medical costs, researchers concluded.

“On average, school meals are healthier than the food American children consume from any other source including at home, but we’re at a critical time to further strengthen their nutrition,” senior author Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist and Jean Mayer Professor of Nutrition at the Friedman School, said in a statement. “Our findings suggest a real positive impact on long-term health and health care costs with even modest updates to the current school meal nutrition standards.”

The USDA’s proposal released in February would require schools to offer mostly whole grain foods beginning in fall 2024, with gradual sugar and sodium content reductions occurring through 2029. The agency is expected to issue final rules in April 2024.

Similarly, the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) in place for 2020–25 also call for meals with less sugar and salt and with more whole grains.

Researchers utilized a simulation model to estimate the potential impact of three changes to the school meal program, including limiting percent of energy from added sugar to lower than 10 percent of total energy per meal, requiring all grain foods to be whole grain, and lowering sodium content to the Chronic Disease Risk Reduction amount for sodium intake in the DGA.

Findings show that if schools implemented new nutrition standards aligned with the DGA, the change would “modestly reduce” the amount of added sugars and sodium children eat, while also increasing their whole grain consumption.

This, in turn, could save 10,600 lives per year and nearly $20 billion in annual healthcare costs in adulthood by preventing childhood cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer linked to poor dietary habits.

“Our commitment to the school meal programs comes from a common goal we all share — keeping kids healthy and helping them reach their full potential,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement when the USDA’s proposal was announced. “Strengthening school meals is one of the best ways we can achieve that goal. Many children aren’t getting the nutrition they need, and diet-related diseases are on the rise. Research shows school meals are the healthiest meals in a day for most kids, proving that they are an important tool for giving kids access to the nutrition they need for a bright future.”