USDA Releases Transitional Standards Milk, Whole Grains and Sodium - Final Rule

February 04, 2022

On February 4, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced transitional standards on milk, whole grains and sodium that will be in place for School Years 2022-2023 and 2023-2024.

The transitional standards include:

  • Allowing local operators of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP) to offer flavored, low-fat milk (1 percent fat) for students in grades K through 12 and for sale as a competitive beverage.
  • Beginning in SY 2022-2023, at least 80 percent of the weekly grains in the school lunch and breakfast menus must be whole grain-rich.
  • Establishes Sodium Target 1 as the sodium limit for school lunch and breakfast in SY2022-2023. For SY2023-2024, schools must meet Sodium Target 1A which requires a 10% reduction in sodium for school lunch only.

All other school nutrition standards – including fruit and vegetable requirements and overall calorie ranges – remain the same as the 2012 standards. More details here.

These transitional standards are in place while USDA works with stakeholders to strengthen meal standards through a new rulemaking for the longer term. The longer-term standards will be based on a comprehensive review of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 and effective starting in school year 2024-2025.

While we are pleased to see continued flexibility for school meal programs, we anticipate the longer- term standards will include more stringent requirements that will result in reduced participation in school meal programs and unnecessary food waste. AASA recognizes the importance of promoting healthy eating habits around sodium, enriched whole grains, and dairy intake, but it is important to acknowledge that healthy meals are only healthy if students eat them.

Some Background: AASA opposed the reauthorization of the Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act largely because while the bill included an increased meal reimbursement rate, LEAs had to adopt the higher meal standards to get the reimbursement, and all analyses demonstrated that adopting the higher nutritional regulations cost at least nearly double the proposed increase, setting schools up to be in the red. The bill became law, though, and AASA and other organizations worked with the administration, Congress and the USDA to craft implementation documents (including guidance and regulations) that brought more levity to the proposal, including the more common-sense requirements around whole grain, milk fat, and sodium. You’ll recall that the HHFKA required 100% whole grains, only allowed for the sale of flavored non-fat milk and included a sodium target level 3. Left to implement these standards, AASA worked with USDA and Congress to make them manageable for districts and were able to get reasonable flexibilities, which remained in effect through the pandemic. Specific to today’s announcement, we had recommended 50% whole grain, maintaining Sodium Target 1 and allowing for the sale of 1% flavored milk. We are pleased to see the majority of our asks included in these transitional standards.

NOTE: Due to COVID-19, USDA has provided various flexibilities in the school meal programs to ensure schools could continue to serve meals during the public health emergency and related supply chain disruptions. USDA has encouraged schools to meet the meal standards as closely as possible, but schools are not being penalized if they are unable to fully meet the requirements at this time.