WASHINGTON   — The US Department of Agriculture plans to regulate added sugars in school meals for the first time beginning in the 2025-26 school year. Other proposed changes in the school meals program, which were announced Feb. 3, covered flavored and unflavored milk, whole grain-rich items, and sodium reduction.

Product-based limits in added sugars for grain-based desserts, breakfast cereal, yogurt and flavored milk will become effective in the 2025-26 school year. Added sugar limits for the week will be required to average less than 10% of calories per meal. Added sugars are those either added during the processing of foods or packaged as such, according to the US Food and Drug Administration.

“By proposing to limit the amount of added sugars in school meals for the first time ever, the USDA is taking a major step toward helping children achieve a more nutritious diet and better health,” the American Heart Association said. “Added sugars are a significant source of excess calories, provide no nutritional value and may cause weight gain and increased risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other chronic health conditions.”

Regulations currently allow flavored and unflavored milk for all grades (kindergarten through 12th grade) while unflavored milk must be offered at each school meal. The USDA proposed two options. One would be to continue allowing flavored milk and unflavored milk for all grades. The second option would be to allow only unflavored milk for grades kindergarten through either fifth grade or eighth grade.

“We are pleased USDA is maintaining low-fat flavored milk in schools, providing children with an additional, and favored, choice to access the 13 essential nutrients milk provides, including three of the four nutrients of public health concern, but we question why USDA would propose school meal options that could limit a child’s access to these nutrients and we urge instead that they expand access to dairy options,” said Jim Mulhern, president and chief executive officer of the National Milk Producers Federation, Arlington, Va.

Current grain regulations require at least 80% of the weekly grains offered to be whole grain-rich. The remaining grain items must be enriched. To meet the USDA’s whole grain-rich criteria, a product must contain at least 50% whole grains, and the other grains must be enriched, bran or germ.

The USDA proposed two options for grains as well. One would be keeping the current regulations. The second one would be to require all grains to meet the whole grain-rich requirement except for one day each week when enriched grains could be offered.

Sodium reductions will come incrementally. For breakfast, the USDA proposed a 10% reduction in sodium for the 2025-26 school year and another 10% reduction for the 2027-28 school year. For school lunch, the USDA proposed three reductions of 10%: one for the 2025-26 school year, one for the 2026-27 school year and one for the 2029-30 school year.

“USDA understands that thoughtful implementation of the updates will take time and teamwork,” said Stacy Dean, deputy undersecretary for the USDA’s Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services. “We’re proposing these changes now to build in plenty of time for planning and collaboration with all of our school nutrition partners.”

Lori Adkins, president of the School Nutrition Association, Arlington, Va., called the proposed rules unrealistic.

“Research shows students receive their healthiest meals at school, thanks to current nutrition standards,” she said. “As schools nationwide contend with persistent supply chain, labor and financial challenges, school meal programs are struggling to successfully maintain current standards and need support, not additional, unrealistic requirements.”

A 2023 SNA national survey of school meal program directors found nearly 89% of respondents said they faced challenges obtaining sufficient menu options like whole grain low-sodium and low-fat options to  meet the current USDA standards.

A 60-day comment period on the proposed school meal standards will begin Feb. 7, according to the USDA.

The USDA also is investing $100 million in the Healthy Meals Incentives initiative. The first phase includes an allocation of $47 million comprised of a $17 million grant for schools that implement strategies for healthy meals and $30 million for small and rural schools that will be eligible for grants of up to $150,000 each.