New USDA Proposal Puts Kids’ Health at Risk

The U.S. Department of Agriculture proposes rolling back healthy nutrition standards for school meals

Schools across the country are working to serve healthy meals to all students, including the more than 54 million kids who have been affected by school closings due to the coronavirus outbreak. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has provided states flexibility to support those efforts.

But USDA is also still moving forward with a proposal to make school meals permanently less healthy. The proposal would allow schools to serve less fruit, fewer whole grains, fewer varieties of vegetables, and more starchy vegetables. Foods like pizza and cheeseburgers could be served more often without being required to meet nutrition standards.

This proposal runs counter to the healthier school meal nutrition standards USDA set in 2012. Today, 99% of U.S. schools meet those healthier standards, benefiting millions of kids.

Students picking from salad bar
new research

Changes to School Meal Nutrition Standards Could Adversely Affect Children’s Health and Education

According to new research, USDA’s proposal to weaken nutrition standards for school meals will adversely affect students’ health and academic performance. The analysis examined the potential impacts of the changes on students’ health and wellbeing as well as academic performance, and found that students from low-income families attending schools that are majority black or Hispanic and in rural neighborhoods are most likely to be affected by these changes. The full study, known as a Health Impact Assessment, was developed by Healthy Eating Research and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Download a summary of the analysis

School meals are healthier and kids are eating more of them

USDA’s own research confirms that school meals have become more nutritious since its updated standards took effect in 2012—and student participation in meal programs is highest in schools that are serving the healthiest meals.

More students are choosing fruit in the lunch line.

Students are eating more of the vegetables they choose at school.

Students are eating more of their school meal entrees.

Healthy Eating Index scores are higher, showing that school meals align more with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans

Whole grains saw the largest increase in Healthy Eating Index scores.

Schools are offering meals with more fruits.

Healthy Eating scores for greens and beans jumped from 21 to 72.

“USDA is helping millions of students get through a really hard time. We encourage the department to apply that same mindset to students’ health and education over the long-term. Weakening school nutrition standards does not solve problems; it creates them. We sincerely hope USDA reconsiders this misguided rule.”

Richard Besser, MD, president and chief executive officer, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Read the full statement on rwjf.org.

Eastern Washington Schools Make Meals Healthier

Eastern Washington School Districts and Chef LJ Klinkenberg have made it their mission to get healthy and tasty food meals served in schools. Since starting their work, the average body mass index among kids at risk for obesity has dropped significantly.

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boy in lunch line at school

Updated School Nutrition Standards Are Effective

A 2019 USDA study found that school meals are considerably healthier under the updated school nutrition standards. We spoke with The Lunch Tray’s Bettina Elias Siegel about her thoughts on the study.

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Young girl sits at her desk writing on a piece of paper.

School Meals are Essential to Kids’ Health

Federal nutrition programs help ensure that children and families nationwide, especially those in low-income communities, have greater access to healthy foods and enough to eat. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Jamie Bussel explains how programs like WIC and school meals are essential to kids’ health.

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“This proposed rule would be detrimental to the long-term health of our children and erase years of progress in child nutrition in our country.”

American Heart Association


Since USDA’s healthier standards took effect, the nutritional quality of school lunches increased by 41%


Since USDA’s healthier standards took effect, the nutritional quality of school breakfasts increased 44%


Harvard researchers predict USDA’s healthier standards would save up to $792M in health care costs

Millions of students participate in school meals and benefit from:

A healthier diet (at breakfast and lunch) including:
• Fruits
• Vegetables
• Milk

Better academic performance:
• Attendance
• Test Scores
• Grades
• Classroom Behavior

Reduced health risks:
• Obesity
• Hunger
• Food Insecurity

“Healthy school meals help combat childhood obesity and improve overall health, particularly for low-income children. USDA’s own research, as well as other research, shows that school meals have improved children’s diet and health. Now is not the time for a roll back.”

Geraldine Henchy, director of nutrition policy, Food Research & Action Center