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New school meal standards set to begin next year. Here's what they could mean for SC students

Students eating lunch in the cafeteria at Lowell Elementary School in Albuquerque, New Mexico
Susan Montoya Bryan/AP
Students eating lunch in the cafeteria at Lowell Elementary School in Albuquerque, New Mexico

Beginning in the fall of 2025, meals served in school cafeterias across the U.S. will have less sugar, less sodium, and more variety.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the new standards will affect nearly 30 million children, half of whom rely on school breakfast and lunch as their main source of nutrition.

USDA Food and Nutrition Service Administrator Cindy Long says the updates will make it easier for schools to access locally sourced products that are grown, raised, or caught, benefiting both schools and the local economy. Beginning in the autumn of 2025, schools will also have limits on the percentage of non-domestically grown and produced foods they can purchase, which the USDA says will enhance the role of American farmers, producers, fishers, and ranchers in providing nutritious foods to schools.

Dr. Kimberly Baker, a registered and licensed dietitian and director of the Food Systems and Safety Program Team with Clemson University’s Cooperative Extension, says the reason for the changes is to have school meal standards be more in line with the 2025 dietary guidelines for Americans, with the recognition that children have a lot more added sugars and sodium in their diet than they should.

“So this is really to help them get on track for healthier meals,” Baker said.

She says the new school meal standards will be gradually phased in, rather than immediately implemented, so that over time, children can get used to the taste of less salt and less sugar in their foods. The reduction in sodium will be phased in over the course of the next three years.

The new standards also allow for greater flexibility in meal planning. Dr. Baker says one of the biggest changes will be for breakfasts.

“Right now, the current requirement is that the breakfast contain a fruit, grains, and a milk, but does not have any standard in terms of meat or meat alternatives like eggs. So now, that is going to be changed," said Baker. "As long as their meals meet the minimum whole grain requirement, they can take one of those grains and replace that with a meat or meat alternative.”

The new standards make room for schools “to serve protein-rich breakfast foods such as yogurt, tofu, eggs, nuts, and seeds, which can help reduce sugary food options, while also supporting vegetarian diets and other food preferences.”

Dr. Baker points out that despite marketing, some cereals that are advertised as “healthy” can actually contain an alarming amount of sugar.

“One example I teach in classes is the amount of sugar that’s in Honey Nut Cheerios versus Lucky Charms," she said. "You think the Cheerios are going to be healthier, but they have the exact same amount of sugar. And that's because it's the ‘honey nut.’ It's the sugar versus the plain Cheerios. So that sugar could very easily sneak in in places that we don't necessarily expect it.”

Choosing fruits is preferable to offering fruit juices, not only to be mindful of the amount of sugars a child consumes but also to ensure more fiber is provided in a child’s diet. The National Institutes of Health says there is evidence that low dietary fiber may affect constipation, obesity, and diabetes in children in the same way it affects adults.

And what about the South’s beloved breakfast staple, grits? Dr. Baker says it’s all in how they’re prepared, advising limiting the amount of sodium and butter that’s typically added to them before serving.

For the full announcement regarding the new school meal standards, visit the USDA's site.

Linda Núñez is a South Carolina native, born in Beaufort, then moved to Columbia. She began her broadcasting career as a journalism student at the University of South Carolina. She has worked at a number of radio stations along the East Coast, but is now happy to call South Carolina Public Radio "home." Linda has a passion for South Carolina history, literature, music, nature, and cooking. For that reason, she enjoys taking day trips across the state to learn more about our state’s culture and its people.