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USDA school nutrition proposal would impact 700K Virginia students

usdaA USDA proposal would allow schools participating in the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program to serve less fruit, fewer whole grains, fewer varieties of vegetables, and more starchy vegetables.

The proposed changes would also allow entrees currently served as part of the lunch or breakfast to be served more often without being required to meet nutrition standards.

This would impact 704,934 students in Virginia, according to a new analysis released this week by Healthy Eating Research, with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The proposal—which is open for public comment through March 23—would result in students in Virginia and nationwide eating less healthy school meals, which would in turn jeopardize their health and make it harder for them to succeed in the classroom. The proposal to change school meal nutrition standards comes despite evidence showing that they are being implemented successfully by the vast majority of schools nationwide and supported by parents, students, and school officials.

Many children can consume up to half of their daily calories at school. Because of the coronavirus outbreak, schools across the country are developing plans to continue to serve healthy meals in the event of school closures. USDA recently announced flexibilities to allow states to continue meal service if schools do need to be closed.

The current school meal nutrition standards were put into place at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year, based on the latest nutrition science and expert guidance from the Institute of Medicine and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. As of September 2016, the most recent data available, 100 percent of schools in Virginia were meeting the updated guidelines.

The proposed rule is at odds with USDA’s own research showing the widespread success of the healthier standards.  A 2019 USDA study, the most comprehensive study to date of the updated standards, found that nutrition quality for both school breakfast and lunch increased by more than 40 percent between 2009-10 and 2014-15. The report also found that student participation in meal programs is highest in schools that serve the healthiest meals. The report concluded that “updated nutrition standards for school meals have had a positive and significant influence on nutritional quality.”

USDA’s study builds on previous research documenting the benefits of healthier school meals. A Harvard study estimated that the updated nutrition standards will prevent more than 2 million cases of childhood obesity and save up to $792 million in health care-related costs over 10 years.

“USDA should not weaken school meal nutrition standards. That’s the wrong move for all kids, but especially those for whom school meals can be their only source of healthy food on a given day,” said Jamie Bussel, Senior Program Officer, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “The current nutrition standards have made school meals significantly healthier, which can reduce the risk of childhood obesity and also helps children succeed in the classroom. We must build on this progress, not roll it back.”

To extend the benefits of healthier school meals, RWJF recommends that policymakers:

  • Maintain nutrition standards for school meals that were in effect prior to USDA’s final rule from December 2018 (whole grains/sodium/milk), and current nutrition standards for school snacks.
  • Continue to implement and expand the Community Eligibility Provision that allows schools in high-poverty areas to serve free meals to all students, regardless of family income.
  • Implement state-level nutrition standards that strengthen the federal standards.
  • Expand guidance and technical assistance to support schools in meeting updated nutrition standards and managing new school kitchen equipment.

Learn more about the healthier school meal standards and proposed changes.