Transitional school meals standards allow low-fat flavored milk

Flavored milk can stay on the menu in schools for the time being under a transitional rule being issued Friday by USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service.

FNS issued the rule, which also addresses whole grains and sodium, in order to offer flexibility to school systems struggling with supply chain challenges during the COVID pandemic.

Noting the standards have been “in flux” for the past few years, Stacy Dean, deputy undersecretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, said FNS would work with interested groups and the Food and Drug Administration to establish long-term standards starting in school year (SY) 2024-2025.

Beginning in SY 2022-2023, FNS said schools and child care providers that serve children six years of age and older “may offer flavored low-fat (1%) milk in addition to nonfat flavored milk and nonfat or low-fat unflavored milk.”

In addition, at least 80% of the grains served in school lunch and breakfast each week must be whole grain-rich. Finally, the weekly sodium limit for school lunch and breakfast will stay at its current level in SY 2022-2023, but will have to be cut by 10% in SY 2023-2024.

Asked why FNS decided to allow low-fat flavored milk, which had in the past been disallowed due to its sugar and fat content, Dean said, “There’s mixed science on the concern around the added sugar” and said calorie caps for meals would remain.

“And so we feel like … when you put all the pieces together, the concern is limited with respect to the flavoring,” she said.

The National Milk Producers Federation welcomed the new rule.

“We thank USDA for the rule’s provision that maintains schools’ ability to serve low-fat, 1% flavored milk,” NMPF CEO Jim Mulhern said. “One percent flavored milk is not only fully consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, it is also a nutrient-dense, low-fat healthy option kids will choose to drink.”

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 set up a timetable for schools to meet nutrition targets, but FNS said in a news release that “due to specific implementation delays and pandemic challenges, some schools may not be prepared to fully meet the standards for milk, whole grain and sodium at this time.” 

Dean said the “transitional standards are broadly consistent with what most schools were already successfully implementing prior to the pandemic.” 

FNS plans to propose a rule this coming fall “that moves toward updating nutrition standards for the long term. USDA is required to update school nutrition standards based on recommendations from the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”

The Food and Drug Administration said it supported the transitional sodium standards, noting that they align with FDA’s short-term voluntary sodium reduction targets, “which in turn are anticipated to support a gradual sodium reduction strategy for the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program.”

Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock and Susan Mayne, director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said in a statement that “the rule also reflects the importance of the FDA’s efforts moving forward to support broad, gradual reduction of sodium intake.”  

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