The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a transitional set of guidelines for school meals this month. According to a press release, the guidelines set a path forward from pandemic operations and toward more nutritious meals.
Federal regulations set minimum nutrition standards and regulate what schools can and cannot serve for lunch.
When the pandemic hit, regulations were waived by the USDA. Primarily because it was near impossible for schools to order food through disrupted supply chains, according to Misty Davis, the Assistant Director of the Office of Child Nutrition at the Ohio Department of Education.
Many of the nutrition standards waived were set in 2012 by the USDA after the federal government passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010.
The policy updated school meal nutrition standards to increase the amount of fruit and vegetables served, mandated schools serve low-fat or fat-free milk and increased whole grains in meals. It also authorized funding to increase access to healthy food for low-income children.
The pandemic complicated what schools could serve since many food distributors couldn’t supply their orders.
But the transitional guidelines will bring meals closer to those pre-pandemic standards and will actually give schools more flexibility — they will be able to serve food that is 80% whole grain instead of 100% and allow flavored milk that is low fat instead of fat-free.
The transitional standards also set rules for schools to decrease the amount of sodium in meals by 10% for the 2023 – 2024 school year.
Davis said the USDS is slowly reimplementing those nutrition standards set back in 2012.
“When the supply chain issues came into play, there were times when they couldn’t get fat-free flavored milk,” Davis said. “So allowing this should give them a couple more options to work with their distributors.”
The guidelines take effect in the Fall for the school year of 2022-2023. The USDA plans to set long-term standards in the coming years.
Food reporter Alejandro Figueroa is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.