Healthy school meals increasingly important, report finds

Due to the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy and the food and nutrition insecurity it has exasperated, healthy school meals are more important than ever for the roughly 30 million American K-12 students who qualify for the programs, according to the 2021 School Meals Corporate Report Card.

The November 2021 report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) looked at food service companies’ progress toward meeting whole grain and sodium standards and found that they are also in a good position to meet standards to reduce added sugars and stop the use of artificial sweeteners and synthetic dyes.

“These findings should encourage food service companies to support strong, science-based nutrition standards and prioritize reformulation of their remaining products that do not comply with these standards,” CSPI states.

School meals are required to include more whole grains, fruits and vegetables and less salt and calories following the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which enhanced nutrition standards for the meals, snacks and beverages offered on campuses.

Those standards, while successful, have suffered “fierce political attacks,” according to CSPI.

“Several attempts to weaken the standards have impacted students’ ability to receive meals containing safer sodium levels and enough whole grains at school,” the report states. “For instance, the U.S. Department of Agriculture implemented a rule in 2018 that weakened sodium reduction, whole grains, and milk standards. A federal court struck down that rule in a lawsuit brought forth by CSPI against the USDA, effectively reinstating the updated standards based on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).”

Currently, the USDA needs to update its compliance deadline for sodium reduction standards and align nutrition standards with 2020–25 DGA.

“To align with the revised recommendations in the 2020 DGA, the USDA must maintain the 100 percent whole-grain-rich standard, strengthen the sodium reduction standards for younger children, and establish a new added sugars standard for meals, snacks, and beverages,” the report clarifies.

The organization also shares concerns about use of artificial sweeteners and synthetic dyes in school foods. If the USDA establishes a standard for added sugars, CSPI is worried food manufacturers may substitute sugar with “harmful artificial sweeteners.”

CSPI is urging the USDA to take five actions, including:

  • Maintaining the 100 percent whole-grain-rich standard and beginning enforcement in the 2022–23 academic year.
  • Extending compliance dates for sodium Targets 2 and 3 and giving robust technical assistance. Target 2 would change from school year 2017–18 to 2023–24 and Target 3 would change from 2022–23 to 2028–29. For high schools, the meal average sodium for Target 2 ≤ 1,080 mg and ≤ 740 mg for Target 3.
  • Creating a fourth target for sodium with an extended compliance timeline to align school meals and 2020 DGA recommendations.
  • Establishing a new standard for added sugars that is consistent with the 2020 DGA recommendation and limits added sugar consumption to 10 percent of meal calories as well as setting a short timeline for compliance as many products already meet the standard.
  • Quickly phasing out the use of harmful artificial sweeteners and synthetic dyes.