by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: School-food

Apr 30 2024

USDA updates school nutrition standards

Last week, the USDA issued new rules for the nutrient content of school meals and also child care programs.

These apply to sugar and sodium (nutrients), whole grains (ingredient or food),  and milk (food).

The New York Times report on this cut right to the chase

The Agriculture Department announced on Wednesday that it had finalized the regulation it had first proposed in February 2023, having weakened several provisions after feedback from food companies, school nutrition professionals and over 136,000 public comments.

The Update to the standards describes the changes and compares them to USDA’s original proposals.

  • Sugars: For the first time (I’m not kidding), the USDA set limits on sugars, starting with breakfast cereals (6 grams per ounce), yogurt (12 grams per 6-ounce serving), and milk (10 grams per 8-ounce serving).  This allows chocolate and other flavored milks if companies get the sugar down to 10 grams.
  • Sodium: beginning July 2027, sodium will be reduced by 15% for lunch and 10% for breakfast from current limits (USDA proposed 3 consecutive reductions of 10% over the next five years.
  • Whole grains: no change from current standard (USDA proposed that 80% of grains be whole).
  • Milk: Allows flavored fat-free and low-fat.

Comment: The sugar rule is an improvement, even though products still are sweetened.  The weakening of the sodium proposal is troubling.  We badly need to reduce sodium in processed and restaurant foods and need federal leadership for doing so.  USDA caved to political pressure here.  The USDA has a long history of captivity by Big Ag.  Now it looks captured by Big Food.

The food industry complaint is that its products won’t meet these standards.  The school food complaint is that the standards are too hard to meet, the kids won’t eat the food, and it will be wasted.

I have a lot of sympathy for school foodservice.  It’s the only thing going on in schools that has to be self-supporting, and school food programs are hugely underfunded.  And lots of schools don’t have kitchens to must rely on food products rather than real food.

But from what I’ve observed, two kinds of skills are needed for successful school meal programs: the ability (1) to prepare and serve edible healthy food, and (2) to get the kids to eat it.  I’ve seen every permutation.

  1. Good food, kids eat it
  2. Good food, kids won’t eat it
  3. So-so food, kids eat it
  4. So-so food, kids won’t eat it

Whenever I hear “the kids won’t eat it,” I wonder where the adults are. From what I’ve seen, if adults care that kids are fed, the kids will eat the food—not all, necessarily, but most.

School food is not just about the food.  It’s about the interactions of school food personnel, teachers, and the principal with the kids.  If the adults think it important and necessary to feed kids healthy food, the program has a good chance of success.  The new USDA standards are a step in the right direction but still have a way to go.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we had food standards rather than nutrition standards?  How about mandating numbers of servings of real foods instead of worrying about grams of sugar and milligrams of sodium.

A thought,

Additional Resources

Oct 27 2023

Weekend reading: School food in Mexico

José Tenorio.  School Food Politics in Mexico: The Corporatization of Obesity and Healthy Eating Policies.  Routledge, 2023.  

I was asked for a blurb for this one:

From first-hand observations and deep research, José Tenorio makes it clear that school food in Mexico is about much more than feeding hungry kids; it’s about how food corporations have taken advantage of social inequalities to replace native food traditions with less healthful but profitable products.  School food politics, indeed!

This book may seem specialized, but it is a useful case study in the politics of school food—not confined to the United States, apparently.

Mexico leads the way in efforts to promote healthier diets.  It has  excellent dietary guidelines.   It also has warning labels on food products (see my post on these), soda taxes, a ban on trans fats, and other measures.

Mexico’s schools do not provide meals for kids in schools.  They sell foods at canteens.

The country set nutrition standards for foods sold in schools in 2011, but compliance is not great.

Public health and food advocacy groups support laws to ban unhealthy foods and drinks from schools.  Despite formidible industry opposition, this may actually happen.

This book provides evidence for why it should.

Sep 26 2023

Some good news about school food

A lot of good stuff is going on about school food these days.  Here are five items.

I.  Universal school meals:

Massachusetts has become the 8th state to authorize universal school meals for kids in public schools.

Five of the eight states that have passed universal school meal programs did so this year. Minnesota and New Mexico enacted their policies in March, with Vermont following in June,  Michigan in July and now Massachusetts.  [Others are underway; here’s a current list]

II.  The USDA’s Healthy School Meals Incentives

III.  Water-in-schools initiatives

A new study just out: “Effectiveness of a School Drinking Water Promotion and Access Program for Overweight Prevention” finds drinking water associated with healthier weights.

  • The US News and World Report article on the study.
  • A short video of study findings is available in English and Spanish
  • National Drinking Water Alliance article
  • Water First resources are available here

IV.  Plant-based school meals

Another study, Plant-Based Trends in California’s School Lunches, produced these findings:

  • 68% of districts offer plant-based options daily or weekly, a 54% increase since 2019.
  • Plant-based entrees increased by 16% (but account for only 8% of entrées offered).
  • Districts are serving higher quality, whole plant-based entrees.

But then things get complicated:

  • Processed meat entrees account for 18% of all entrées offered, an increase of 11% since 2019.
  • More the half (57%) of all offerings on school menus contain cheese, and some of these are highly processed and include meat (e.g., pepperoni pizza).

California has a School Food Best Practices Fund for purchasing high-quality plant-based offerings, along with locally grown, minimally processed and sustainably grown food.

V.   School Nutrition policies and practices

A new study, “School Nutrition Environment and Services: Policies and Practices That Promote Healthy Eating Among K-12 Students,” says these interventions work:

Providing school nutrition professionals with professional development

  • Improving the palatability of school meals
  • Offering taste tests
  • Pre-slicing fruit
  • Providing recess before lunch
  • Offering incentives for trying healthier options
  • Providing access to drinking water

Comment:  Yes on universal school meals.  Everyone should be working on states to pass this legislation.  As for what works in schools, these interventions are well within the possible.  Get to work!

Mar 22 2023

Lunchables (OK, reformulated versions) are heading for a school near you

My email inbox last week was full of notes from people  who did not want me to miss the latest school food news: Lunchables—the prototypical ultra-processed meals, some made for kids—can now be sold and fed in schools (thanks Will Rosenzweig).

Starting this year, school administrators will be able to buy two different Lunchables offerings for the 2023-2024 school year: Turkey and Cheddar Cracker Stacker and Extra Cheesy Pizza, Kraft Heinz spokesperson Jenna Thornton told NBC News…the two Lunchables now meet National School Lunch Program guidelines and “have a specialized recipe that incorporates more protein and whole grains,” “reduced saturated fat and sodium, and an increased serving size.”

Supposedly, the meals have been modified—heIngredient list regular Lunchables cheese pizzare’s what Lunchables Turkey & Cheddar looks like—to meet USDA standards for school meals.

According to the accountof this  in The Guardian,

Kraft Heinz executive vice-president Carlos Abrams-Rivera said the company has produced two new varieties of specially formulated Lunchables containing “improved nutrition” so that they can become part of the National School Lunch program, which provides lunch daily to nearly 30 million students across the US.

I wanted to see an ingredient list.  Do they meet the NEW nutrition standards recently proposed by the USDA?

  • I searched for Nutrition Facts and ingredient lists for these products but could not find them online.
  • I called the consumer hotline at Kraft/Heinz.  After about 20 minutes of searching, the representative told me she did not have that information and I would have to get it from a school food salesperson.
  • Calls to the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service also did not turn up the basic nutition information (thanks Jerry Mande).
  • Neither did calls to New York City’s school food people (thanks Pam Koch).

But then a reader sent me the Kraft/Heinz “sell sheet” (thanks Alexina Cather):

She then followed up by sending me these documents (thanks Alexina)

That reader also sent Nutrition Facts panels for the school lunch cheese pizza (330 calories) and the school lunch turkey & cheddar (270 calories).

Product reformulation for the school lunch cheese pizza















Gulp.  Nutritionism in action: if it meets standards for salt and sugar, it’s OK?  I don’t think so.

It’s still ultra-processed.  How about serving kids real food?

School-based Lunchables raise the question: is a slightly better-for-you product necessarily a good choice?

Not in this case.

The entire idea of reformulated branded products is just plain wrong.

Why?  Because these products are advertisements for the brand’s regular offerings.  Nobody explains this better than Michael Moss in this short video.



Thanks again to Will Rosenzweig, Jerry Mande, Alexina Cather, Pam Koch, and Michael Moss for all the help with this.


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Mar 9 2023

The School Nutrition Association vs. USDA’s nutrition standards

Try as hard as I can, I will never understand why everyone—rich or poor, democrat or republican—isn’t doing everything possibly to make sure that all kids in schools are offered healthy breakfasts and lunches, every day, at no cost.

Children are the future of our country.  We need them to be healthy.

That is why I will never understand how anyone could oppose universal school meals and the strongest nutrition standards possible, let alone the people who produce those meals as represented by the School Nutrition Association (SNA).

OK, the SNA strongly encourages partnerships with food and beverage companies.  The SNA does not list its donors on iany obvious place on its website, but does list the ones that contribute to its annual meeting.   A few years ago, reporters said food companies accounted for half the organization’s revenues.

Perhaps that accounts for the SNA’s long-standing opposition to improving nutrition standards for school meals and the USDA’s latest efforts to do so.

The SNA’s 2023 position paper calls for some useful things: higher reimbursement rates for school meals, universal school meals, reductions in administrative burdens.

But, it also wants: the USDA to drop its new “additional, unachievable rules.”

In February, USDA proposed stricter, long-term nutrition rules. However, 88.8% of school nutrition directors reported challenges
obtaining sufficient menu items (e.g. whole-grain, low-sodium, low-fat options) to meet current standards. Additionally, 97.8% are concerned about the availability of foods to meet the July 2023 transitional sodium limits. To keep students eating healthy school meals, USDA must support school nutrition professionals as they work to maintain current standards.

Briget Huber, writing for FERN, quotes the SNA’s director of media relations.

Additional rules are just not feasible for schools right now…Interim rules cutting sodium more modestly than in the USDA’s new proposal take effect in July, and in a recent survey, SNA members “overwhelmingly” said they were not prepared to meet even those standards…They are very concerned about the availability of foods that meet the targets and are acceptable to students… schools are struggling to staff their kitchens,…They have to compete with local fast-food restaurants and food service establishments that, quite frankly, have a better budget for increasing salaries.

In my experience, schools where personnel believe that healthy meals are important somehow manage to achieve the standards and get the kids to eat the foods.  I think the SNA should be supporting them, not undermining them.

As for evidence contrary to the SNA’s position:

  • Center for Science in the Public Interest keeps a scorecard on school meals.  Its data show much compliance with standards.
  • Tufts University researchers  find that school meals are healthier than those eaten at home or anywhere else.
  • The USDA’s School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study finds most school able to meet the standards and that meals are getting more nutritious.
  • Researchers have shown: following passage of the law that improved USDA’s school nutrition standards, its “implementation was associated with a significant decrease in [Body Mass Index] among school-aged youths in the US. The findings suggest that school meal programs represent a key opportunity for interventions to combat the childhood obesity epidemic given the high rates of program participation and the proportion of total calories consumed through school-based meals.

Yes there are financial and logistical difficulties.  And yes, kids in school won’t be eating food that is as junky.  That’s the point!

The SNA should be leading the country on encouraging schools to serve the healthiest meals possible.  That it is not doing so is a disgrace.

Here are the USDA’s infographics (other resources are also available at the USDA’s site):


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Feb 16 2023

USDA proposes better school nutrition standards

The USDA is trying to improve nutrition standards for school meals.  I wish it the best of luck.

It is proposing over the next several years to:

  • Limit added sugars in certain high-sugar products and, later, across the weekly menu;
  • Allow flavored milk in certain circumstances and with reasonable limits on added sugars;
  • Incrementally reduce weekly sodium limits over many school years; and
  • Emphasize products that are primarily whole grain, with the option for occasional non-whole grain products.

This does not make it sound as if USDA is in much of a hurry.  Or that it is doing anything particularly radical.

Take the sugar proposals, for example.  Currently, the re are no limits on sugars in school meals, which means that any limits ought to be an improvement.  The USDA proposal sugar limits in two phases:

  1. Product-based limits: Beginning in school year (SY) 2025-26, the rule proposes limits on products that are the leading sources of added sugars in school meals:
    1. Grain-based desserts (cereal bars, doughnuts, sweet rolls, toaster pastries, coffee cakes, and fruit turnovers) would be limited to no more than 2 ounce equivalents per week in school breakfast, consistent with the current limit for school lunch.
    2. Breakfast cereals would be limited to no more than 6 grams of added sugars per dry ounce. This would apply to CACFP [Child and Adult Care Food Program] as well, replacing the current total sugars limit.
    3. Yogurts would be limited to no more than 12 grams of added sugars per 6 ounces.
    4. Flavored milks would be limited to no more than 10 grams of added sugars per 8 fluid ounces for milk served with school lunch or breakfast. For flavored milk sold outside of the meal (as a competitive beverage for middle and high school students), the limit would be 15 grams of added sugars per 12 fluid ounces.
  2. Overall weekly limit: Beginning in SY 2027-28, this rule proposes limiting added sugars to an average of less than 10% of calories per meal, for both school breakfasts and lunches. This weekly limit would be in addition to the product-based limits described above.

Sugary products will still be allowed.  And schools have 4-5 years to comply (by that time, today’s elementary school children will be in high school).

Why the pussy-footing?  The USDA must be expecting ferocious pushback, and for good reason.  Anything, no matter how small, that threatens sales of foods commonly sold in schools will incite fights to the death.

This, of course, was  precisely the reaction to Obama Administration immprovements to school meals, most of which were implemented with little difficulty.  Even so, Congress yielded to lobbying pressure and caved in on rules about potatoes, ketchup (a vegetable!), and whole grains.

I will never understand why everyone isn’t behind healthier foods for kids, but I’m not trying to get them to eat junk food.

As for why school meals matter so much to kids’ health, see Healthy Eating Research: Rapid Health Impact Assessment on Changes to School Nutrition Standards to Align with 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

As for the gory details of the USDA’s proposals, see:

Care to say something about this? FNS encourages all interested parties to comment on the proposed school meal standards rule during the 60-day comment period that begins February 7, 2023.


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Jan 18 2023

The School Nutrition Association calls for universal school meals

Will wonders never cease.  You might think that of course the School Nutrition Association, which represents people who cook and staff school meal programs, would be in favor of universal free meals for all school kids, but I was amazed to see its 2023 Position Paper.

This asks Congress to:

  • Make permanent the reimbursement rate increases for the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Program (NSLP/SBP), provided in the bipartisan Keep Kids Fed Act (PL 117-158).
  • Expand NSLP/SBP to offer healthy school meals for all students at no charge.
  • Ensure USDA maintains current school nutrition standards rather than implement additional, unachievable rules.
  • Reduce regulatory and administrative burdens.

I’m surprised because this is the same organization that fought improvements to the rules for school meals, as I have discussed previously.

I think it’s terrific that the SNA is now at the forefront of child nutrition advocacy.

Check out the resources on its website.

See what it’s doing to advocate.

Support these calls!


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Nov 3 2022

A call for universal school meals: Yes!

TODAY: 3:30 pm, lecture followed by a reception.  Robertson Auditorium, Mission Bay Conference Center, 1675Owens Street Unit 251.  Register here.


FRAC, the Food Research & Action Center, emailed this press announcement:   FRAC and More Than 30 National Organizations Urge Senators to Include Provisions to Expand Community Eligibility in Child Nutrition Reauthorization

The groups signed a letter calling for:

  • Lowering the eligibility threshold for community eligibility (making school meals universal) from 40 percent identified students to 25 percent
  • Raising the federal reimbursement so participating schools can serve students
  • Creating a statewide community eligibility option, which would make universal school meals statewide.


Here’s what FRAC says about community eligibility:

Community eligibility allows high-need schools to offer free meals to all students at no charge. It reduces administrative work for school districts; allows them to focus on providing healthy and appealing meals to students; supports working families who don’t qualify for free school meals; ensures that all students have the nutrition they need to learn and thrive; and eliminates unpaid school meal fees…Studies have shown participation in school meals improves students’ attendance, behavior, and academic achievement, and reduces tardiness. Students who eat breakfast at school perform better on standardized tests than those who skip breakfast or eat breakfast at home, and have improved scores in spelling, reading, and math.

We had universal school meals during the pandemic.  This was:

  • Good for students and their families; kids were fed decently
  • Good for schools; the didn’t have to police and stigmatize kids whose families couldn’t pay for meals

Universal school meals would save administrative costs.  Yes, they would cost more, but not that much more.

And the payoff in kids’ health would be terrific.

This one is a no brainer.

Do it, please.


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