On May 1, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) plans to make changes to nutrition standards for the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program; he also signed a proclamation to this effect. The proclamation describes plans to relax whole grain, sodium, and milk requirements but does not mention changes to other aspects of the meals' nutrition standards. The current standards were largely finalized via regulation in 2012 in accordance with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (P.L. 111-296) and were championed by then First Lady Michelle Obama. Although the Secretary's proclamation itself does not amend the underlying regulations, it directs the agency to begin the rulemaking process. Aside from this rulemaking, for School Year 2017-2018 USDA will offer the whole grain, sodium, and milk flexibilities that were required by the FY2017 appropriations law (P.L. 115-31, enacted May 5, 2017).

Nutrition Standards in School Meals Generally

To receive reimbursements under the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program, federal law requires that meals served in schools meet nutrition standards set by the USDA. The statutory requirement for USDA nutrition standards dates back to 1946. The USDA school meal nutrition standards regulations were last amended in January 2012, but the implementation of these standards has also been subject to policy provisions in annual appropriations acts.

Final Rule (January 26, 2012)

The 2010 reauthorization of the school meals programs (Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (P.L. 111-296)) set a timeframe for updating the old regulations (which had last been updated in 1995), but the exact meal pattern requirements (e.g., fat, calorie, sodium limits; required serving sizes) are generally enumerated in regulations, not statute. For the most part, the nutrition standards in the January 2012 final rule were based on the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine's (NASEM) 2010 recommendations, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), and FY2012 appropriations law. For example, the 2010 DGA recommended increasing intake of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and fat-free and low-fat milk products. Consistent with these recommendations, the 2012 final rule's major changes included the following:

As required by the 2010 law, USDA also provides an additional 6-cents-per-lunch reimbursement to schools complying with the updated standards. According to USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) September 2016 data, nearly all school food authorities are certified to be in compliance with the nutrition standards; states have certification rates that range from 90 to 100%.

Policy Provisions in Appropriations Law

Following the publication of the 2012 final rule, Congress has addressed school and industry concerns with phased-in whole grain and sodium requirements through annual appropriation acts.

Policy provisions in FY2015 appropriations law (P.L. 113-235) and FY2016 appropriations law (P.L. 114-113) (1) required USDA, through the states, to provide certain hardship-based waivers from the 100% whole grain-rich requirements for SY2014-2015, SY2015-2016, and SY2016-2017; and (2) prevented USDA from implementing sodium limits below Target 1.

Section 747 of the FY2017 appropriations law contains related policy provisions; it extends the prior laws' policy provisions and adds a new policy. It extends the whole grain exemptions through SY2017-2018, and (using different language from past years) limits enforcement of sodium limits to Target 1 levels. A new appropriations provision was added that requires USDA to allow states to grant special exemptions to serve flavored, low-fat milk.

NOTE: In the 114th Congress, committee-reported bills to reauthorize the child nutrition programs would have required changes to nutrition standards. Committees of jurisdiction marked up bills, but the 114th Congress did not complete reauthorization.

May 1, 2017, Proclamation Details

The Secretary's proclamation describes a commitment to change three aspects of school meals regulations:

1. Whole Grains. The Secretary directs USDA to begin revising regulations "to provide schools with additional options in regard to the serving of whole grains." In the meantime, the Secretary says USDA will continue to provide states the authority to offer exemptions in SY2017-2018.

2. Sodium. The Secretary states that USDA will not require schools to meet sodium requirements lower than Target 1 through SY2019-2020 and will undertake regulatory actions to implement this change.

3. Milk. The Secretary directs USDA to begin the regulatory process to provide schools with the discretion to serve flavored 1% milk.

The proclamation does not address other changes to the 2012 standards (e.g., calorie ranges, trans fat) but subsequent rulemaking could.

Next Steps

Once USDA has published proposed amendments to the nutrition standards regulations, as directed by the Secretary's proclamation, Congress and school meals programs' stakeholders may consider more specific policy implications and take advantage of the opportunity to comment on the proposed changes. In the meantime, parties can expect implementation of the policies in the current regulations and most recent appropriations law.