February 10, 2022

USDA Allows Meal Pattern Flexibilities While Moving Towards Stronger Nutritional Standards for School Meals

School meals are a critical component of the nation’s food security safety net, ensuring that millions of vulnerable children have access to nutritious meals during the school day. School nutrition programs continue to face many challenges as a result of the pandemic, including school closures, staff shortages, and supply chain issues. These issues are exacerbated in schools that serve Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), under- resourced, and rural communities. As the nation begins to envision a path forward,  Alliance for a Healthier Generation (Healthier Generation) salutes the amazing work of our school nutrition professionals and acknowledges that flexibility will be required as we shift back to pre-pandemic regulations for school meals. 

As a first step, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) has issued a final rule with request for comments (comments due by March 24, 2022) establishing transitional standards for milk, whole grains, and sodium that will remain in effect for the next two school years. This rule allows for flexibility due to ongoing supply chain and staffing issues, while ensuring that children have access to healthy meals in alignment with the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2020-2025). FNS is also looking forward to engaging school meal stakeholders in the establishment of long-term nutrition standards for school meals that will take effect in the 2024-2025 school year. 

Child Nutrition Programs: Transitional Standards for Milk, Whole Grains, and Sodium – establishes the following requirements beginning School Year 2022-2023: 

  • Milk: Schools and child care providers serving participants ages six and older may offer flavored, low-fat (1%) milk in addition to unflavored, low-fat milk and flavored or unflavored nonfat milk; 
  • Whole Grains: At least 80% of the grains served in school lunch and breakfast each week must be whole grain-rich (containing at least 50% whole grains) 
  • Sodium: The weekly sodium limit for school lunch and breakfast will remain at the current level in School Year 2022-2023. For school lunch only, there will be a 10% decrease in the sodium limit in School Year 2023-2024. This aligns with the U.S Food and Drug Administration’s recently released guidance that establishes voluntary sodium reduction targets for processed, packaged, and prepared foods in the U.S. 
  • All other nutrition standards for school meals, including fruit and vegetable requirements, will remain the same as the 2012 meal standards

Comments to USDA on this rule will be utilized to create long-term nutrition standards for school meals that will take effect in the 2024-2025 school year. Healthier Generation will provide comments on this rule, will continue to monitor changes in federal regulations, and will provide updated information, tools, and resources to support implementation. We encourage other interested parties to submit comments to ensure that USDA receives diverse stakeholder feedback.  

Please contact our National Advisors with questions.  

Related Resources: 

To Market to Buy a Green Pear: Local Procurement Strategies for Child Nutrition Programs 

Fostering a Culture of Wellness, Gratitude and Self Care: Strategies for Food Service Directors Part 1 and Part 2