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Nutritionists fear USDA updates to school lunches go too far

One of the most immediate changes is a push to get schools to serve mostly whole grains by the start of the school year in 2024.
Posted at 6:59 AM, Mar 20, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-20 06:59:51-04

Your child's lunch or breakfast at school could soon be changing. 

That's because of new guidelines proposed by the Department of Agriculture, which regulates school meals nationwide. 

One of the most immediate changes is a push to get schools to serve primarily whole grains by the start of the school year in 2024. 

However, the proposal is getting some surprising pushback — including from those overseeing nutrition in schools nationwide.

Reason to worry

In short, the goal of the USDA is to put more whole grains, less sodium, and less sugar in students' meals while at school. 

A public comment period is underway and runs through April 10.

While criticism is always expected with any proposed government change, some criticism is surprising: The criticism coming from school nutritionists.

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"There is a fine line," said Jessica Gould, a school nutrition director for Littleton Public Schools in Colorado. 

Gould says eating healthy is great. She strives for that every day. However, she worries the current proposal might go too far.

At the end of the day, school nutritionists must ensure students want to eat the food.

"The kids that don't like the taste of our food — because it doesn't have enough flavor — they bring their own food from home," Gould says. 

Gould's fear is less-tastier food could create a culture of the haves and the have-nots. Children whose parents can afford to let them bring their meals and children whose parents can't.

"We overregulate sometimes," Gould said. 

Not to mention, there is a cost.

One suggested change is reducing the sodium levels in meals by around 30% by 2029. That will force food manufacturers to change recipes and distribution, passing the cost to schools.

This 2015 image shows a vegetarian boxed school lunch with carrot sticks and fruit.

Many students in the U.S. are dealing with lunch debt

Lunches for U.S. public school students were free during the pandemic. But that program has ended, and some parents are struggling to cover the cost.


"Manufacturers have said every time we reformulate for our programs, it costs millions of dollars," Gould said. 

Over at the Department of Agriculture, the issue is serious. 

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack calls it a public health issue, and new funding is being made available to make it happen. 

"This is a national security imperative. It's a health care imperative for our children," Vilsack said.