The Learning Curve: USDA changes nutritional guidelines for school meals

The Learning Curve: USDA changes nutritional guidelines for school meals

MISHAWAKA, Ind.-- This week on the Learning Curve, the ABC57 team dives into the food shortage issues being felt across all districts.

Schools across the board are trying to figure out how to keep healthy, nutrient rich food on your kids plates, while staying out of the red.

Education, extracurriculars, friendships, and sports are all good reasons why you send you child to school every day.

However, what is one reason that might be lost on many people?


Students who need a hot meal 5 days a week can get one at school, but it’s not as simple as making leftovers from the kitchen.

Each school lunch is thoughtfully put together with calorie requirements and national standards in mind.

Starting next school year, the standards could be tougher for local districts to meet.

So now, what can school districts and the students eating the meals expect as new regulations are released?

“So there's a lot of different things that goes into a school meal,” said Sarah Williams, the Director of Food Service at the Northern Indiana Educational Services Center or NIESC.

NIESC is a service available for school districts to help pair staff, students, and schools in general through innovative ideas and providing services, including food avenues.

Williams specifically helps schools like Knox and other Michiana districts budget and get the food they need.

For a meal to go on a child’s plate at school there are certain requirements that must be met.

“There's different requirements for K five than there are for six, eight and 912,” said Williams “So we have to make sure that every meal that we offer to students meets all of those requirements.”

In the long standing rules that were put in place by former first lady, Michelle Obama, and the 2012 USDA team a student’s plate was required to fulfill certain requirements.

“So we always have to offer five components. For every school lunch, we have to have milk, fruits, vegetables and vegetables have to be from different subgroups throughout the week, such as beans and red, orange and dark green vegetables, we have to have grains and a meat or meat alternate or protein item, we have to have certain amounts of each of those throughout the week based on student grade levels,” said Williams.

In conjunction with the specific food categories comes restrictions in salt levels, calorie counts, and more.

The guidelines are transitional and will not take affect until the fall of 2022.

The only untouched food groups are fruit and vegetable requirements which will stay the same as the 2012 standards of one of each at least offered per meal.

However, as of July 1, 2022, schools can provide kids 6 and older flavored and unflavored 1 percent and non-fat milk options.

80 percent of grains in available breakfasts and lunches must be whole-grain rich.

“We are supposed to offer 50% Whole Grains throughout the week, I would say most schools are probably meeting or exceeding that already anyway,” said Williams.

Sodium levels will remain the same for the 2022-2023 school year.

However, the USDA is reminding schools that come fall of 2021, schools will need to decrease salt consumption by 10 percent.

“Then decreasing the sodium that is going to be hard for manufacturers to meet. Because right now they're just focusing on trying to get the product to us so that we have the product to serve to the students. Now, that's going to require them to possibly make some changes to their formulas,” said Williams.

Changing formulas falls in line with the FDA’s October 20-21 guidance focusing on the future of food and decreasing salt in all food manufacturers, chain restaurants and school across the country in the name of health and wellness.

A large issue now is will the current supply meet demand?

Morning anchor, Summer Horan, asked Williams if the new guidelines have made the process of getting food any harder.

“I think the new requirements that they just put out are going to just make it more difficult to get food,” said Williams “We've already had a bakery vendor decided that they're no longer going to provide bakery bread products to schools starting next school year. Whether it be because of labor shortages, or they make more on retail items, but so now we have to find other sources for our whole grain bread. So it's just going to make it harder.”

As food manufacturers continue to ramp up production, Williams hopes that these shortages will eventually go away.

In the meantime, she hopes parents will understand and trust the process.

“Just to be patient with schools right now. We are doing everything that we can in particular in school food service to make sure that kids are fed and try to get them a meal that they're going to enjoy that meets all of the federal requirements,” said Williams.

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