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USDA announces updates to school meal nutrition standards to begin in 2022-2023 school year

By Liz Stark, CNN

The Biden administration will implement new updates to school nutrition standards for the coming academic years, the US Department of Agriculture announced Friday, as part of an effort to make school meals healthier while schools also work to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.

These transitional nutrition standards — set to be implemented in the next two school years — are intended to give “schools time to transition from current, pandemic operations, toward more nutritious meals,” according to USDA. These standards include updates to milk, whole grains and sodium requirements for school meals.

This comes as schools across the country have struggled to serve students meals amid a spike in food prices and supply chain disruptions.

USDA pointed to the transitional nature of these new nutrition requirements as a way for schools to “gradually transition from the extraordinary circumstances caused by the pandemic to normal program operations and meal standards that are consistent with the latest nutrition science,” the agency said in a news release.

The new standards include: schools may offer flavored low-fat (1%) milk in addition to other nonfat and low-fat milk options; at least 80% of grains in school breakfasts and lunches per week must be whole-grain rich; and starting in the 2023-2024 school year, there will be a 10% decrease in the weekly sodium limit for school lunches only. The weekly sodium limit for the 2022-2023 school year will remain at current levels, according to USDA.

“Nutritious school meals give America’s children the foundation for successful, healthy lives,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a statement Friday. “We applaud schools’ heroic efforts throughout the challenges of this pandemic to continue serving kids the most nutritious meals possible. The standards we’re putting in place for the next two school years will help schools transition to a future that builds on the tremendous strides they’ve made improving school meal nutrition over the past decade.”

In Friday’s announcement, USDA also said more long-term nutrition standards are expected to be established for the 2024-2025 academic year. The USDA previously made major updates to its school nutrition standards in 2012.

While schools were “largely successful” in implementing those 2012 standards, the agency noted Friday, administrative delays and the Covid-19 pandemic have resulted in disruptions where “some schools may not be prepared to fully meet the standards for milk, whole grain and sodium at this time.”

Stacy Dean, deputy undersecretary for USDA’s Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, described the gradual transitional standards as “realistic” while schools recover from the pandemic and also work to strengthen child nutrition programs.

“We know it’s not easy to alter eating habits, but the future payoffs of even incremental changes are extraordinary, and schools have shown that success is possible,” Dean told reporters on a call.

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