Congress will once again review and attempt to update the school and child nutrition programs of the National School Lunch Act and the Child Nutrition Act, often referred to as Child Nutrition Reauthorization. These statutes authorize and direct funding to the National School Lunch Program, National School Breakfast Program, Child and Adult Care Food Program, Summer Feeding Programs and several nutrition education programs. Congress last updated these statutes under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. And since 2015, have continued through annual Congressional appropriates, and where necessary, year-to-year extensions.
Lawmakers are prioritizing reauthorization efforts in the 117th Congress. As part of this process, Congress is reviewing how the child nutrition programs have functioned, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic emergency, when flexibilities and waivers were needed and successfully used by states, schools and throughout their supply-chain to continue providing nutritious meals to children when schools were closed.
In addition to legislation such as the Child Nutrition Act, USDA also has an important role in setting requirements and nutritional guidelines for school meals through program regulations.
Dairy products play an important role in school meals. Milk is offered with every school lunch, while cheese and yogurt are protein sources that can be served in entrees. IDFA is a longtime advocate for expanding milk choices in schools to combat consumption declines and continues to defend dairy’s role with a focus on four priorities:
Schools, dairy producers and suppliers need certainty from Child Nutrition Reauthorization to continue serving one-percent, low-fat, flavored milk in school meal programs, which is currently allowed and consistent with the two most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
An April 2020 district court decision reverted to a 2012 USDA rule-prohibition of low-fat, flavored milk that is outdated due to the past two recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2015-2020 and 2020-2025).
In 2012 a USDA rule prohibited schools from serving low-fat (1%) flavored milk, as well as higher milkfat varieties. Even though non-fat, flavored milk was allowed, this rule change resulted in overall school milk consumption declining by 9% in volume between the 2011-12 and 2015-16 school years.
Since the 2012 USDA rule, both the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) and the 2020-2025 DGAs identified dairy, particularly fluid milk, as a “nutrient-dense” beverage, providing 13 essential nutrients. The DGAs have found that 90% of Americans do not consume the recommended amount of dairy, including among school-age children.
To increase intake of milk and dairy to recommended levels, the 2020-2025 DGAs noted “A small amount of added sugars… can be added to nutrient-dense foods and beverages to help meet food group recommendations.” The dairy industry has met this challenge by reducing the calorie and added sugar content of flavored milk by 57%, from 16.7 grams to 7.1 grams of added sugar between School Years 2006-07 and 2019-20.
In 2017, USDA, considering the DGA recommendations for increased milk consumption combined with declining school milk consumption, allowed schools to re-continue serving low-fat, flavored milk. After the April 2020 district court ruling vacated this flexibility, bipartisan language protecting low-fat, flavored milk availability in schools was enacted in the FY21 Omnibus Appropriations Act but is uncertain in future school years. Schools and dairy producers cannot be left to the uncertainty of a pending rule-prohibition of low-fat, flavored milk that is outdated from the past two DGAs and led to a loss of child milk drinkers to other, less nutrient-dense beverages.
Schools and dairy suppliers, have been following “Target 1” sodium reduction levels since SY2014-2015, and have previously been planning to comply with USDA’s National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program “Target 2” sodium levels by SY2024-2025 as promulgated by USDA’s 2017 final rule providing flexibilities, but an April 2020 District Court ruling effectively nullified the compliance date and made the Target 2 sodium levels effective immediately.
Worse yet are the “Target 3” sodium limits, which had been indefinitely postponed under the USDA 2017 flexibilities rule but are now scheduled to be effective in SY2022-2023. Target 3 may not be achievable for certain dairy items important to the school meal programs, such as cheese, for which salt and hence sodium serves a functional and food safety role. In cheese, salt promotes food safety by affecting fermentation, which can influence pH and water activity, while also preventing the growth of pathogens.
Waivers are currently in place allowing schools not to comply with the Target 2 sodium targets in school meals through SY 2021-2022; however, this is only a temporary fix and without a permanent solution, schools would be forced to switch from current levels of sodium immediately into Target 3 levels when the waiver expires for SY 2022-2023.
Congress needs to clarify that making water available is intended to supplement—not supplant or replace—fluid milk offering requirements in schools.
The National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program administered by USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) requires schools to offer students a variety of fluid milk and to make potable water available during meals. Unfortunately, some schools are instructing students on the serving line to choose between milk OR bottled water with their meals.
Ensuring bottled water is not substituted for milk is important because water does not provide the essential nutrients in milk, yet bottled water has been competing against milk rather than supplementing milk offerings that are required to be offered as part of reimbursable meals. FNS has clarified to schools that bottled water may not be offered as a substitute for milk in the school meal programs, but in January 2020, requested comment to allow additional water options.
Under current regulations, high schools may only offer lowfat and nonfat milk in containers up to 12 ounces, while 20-ounce containers of diet sodas, low-calorie sports drinks and caffeinated beverages are available. This puts milk at a competitive disadvantage when high school students decide what to drink after school or with a school meal. Allowing milk containers up to 16 ounces would encourage teens to choose healthier beverages and gain added nutrition.
In Congress, Child Nutrition Reauthorization is a priority in 2021, while agriculture appropriations have provided funding and occasional flexibilities and program adjustment in the interim. Meanwhile at USDA, a proposed rule that would reinstate flexibilities related to milk, sodium and whole grains is under consideration. Additionally, USDA has released a number of waivers providing schools with a variety of flexibilities to increase student access to healthy school meals during the nationwide recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of these waivers allow for meal pattern flexibilities, but are a temporary solution, since they will expire following the 2021-2022 school year.
For more information, contact Dave Carlin, IDFA senior vice president, legislative affairs and economic policy, at email@example.com, or Joseph Scimeca, IDFA senior vice president, regulatory and scientific affairs, at firstname.lastname@example.org.