By Sherry Bunting, (updated from Farmshine print edition, Feb. 10, 2023)
WASHINGTON — USDA is taking aim at a different area of school milk with new proposed rules announced Feb. 7 that could limit flavored milk to only students in grades 9 through 12. A second option would be to allow all grade levels access to flavored milk, but with draconian cuts to the amount of added sugar they could contain, without regard for nutrient density.
We already have nonsensical restrictions on fat levels for school milk. The more fat is removed from diets, the more sugar is added. That’s a default truth, especially for chocolate milk.
With a 30-minute webinar panel moderated by Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack On Feb. 3, Vilsack cited the Tufts University Friedman School – developer of the infamous Food Compass – as an authoritative source for the Biden-Harris National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition and Health. The proposed rule itself mentions a “Healthy Eating Index” — a rating system — was applied to align with the 2020-25 Dietary Guidelines.
In the subsequent news release, USDA stated that the proposed rule is part of this National Strategy, which was released in conjunction with the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health in September. The conference development, incidentally, was headed up by Dariush Mozaffarian, Dean of the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.
(Please note that the FDA Healthy Labeling proposed rule is another piece of the National Strategy. Public comments on that end Feb. 16, 2023 at this link)
The goal of the National Strategy and the Feb. 7 proposed school meal rule, said Vilsack, is to end hunger and diet-related diseases by 2030.
With that pronouncement and other platitudes about hunger and health… USDA set off to the races on a set of new standards in a proposed rule for school meals that will further limit consumption of nutrient dense foods as multi-year implementation begins when ‘transitional flexibilities’ end in the 2024-25 school year.
Reducing added sugar and sodium levels, as well as increasing the percentages of whole grains, are at the core of the new rules, but there are pages and pages of rules to analyze.
Saturated fat restrictions, including milkfat, will continue and will be more restrictive as the transitional flexibilities USDA has allowed since the Covid pandemic and supply chain disruptions will end in school year 2024-25; however, more flexibility is granted to saturated fats from plant-based sources, such as seed oils.
Secretary Vilsack insists USDA has been on the right track with school meals since 2010. He applauded the results since the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act was passed (which set up the vehicle for USDA to further restrict saturated fat and to remove whole and 2% milk from schools).
He said that the rate of obesity has declined among children in lower income brackets in every year since 2010. (We’ll have to dig into that because we’ve seen studies and reports showing quite the opposite trend.)
In other words, Vilsack is fully committed to the fat restrictions, and now added sugar and sodium are the new screws to be tightened.
“This makes me sad for our kids,” wrote one school foodservice director in an email after reading the proposed rule.
“If they don’t want us anymore, just tell us now and save us all the misery,” a milk bottler said in conversation upon hearing the news.
“Do public comments ever really make a difference?” a prominent nutrition and health investigator and advocate wrote in an email. “It seems to me that it’s so much window-dressing.”
Friday’s panel with Secretary Vilsack could be described as window-dressing. Consisting of a school-involved mother, a teacher, and a foodservice director, they each called for greater flexibility, more resources and support and more tools to feed nutritious meals as well as more time for children to eat their meals.
Flexibility was a big part of their panel comments. However, the new proposed rule is anything but flexible.
Take a look. Public comments close April 10, 2023
According to the USDA news release Monday, the USDA Food Nutrition Service describes this as “a gradual, multi-year approach to implementing a few important updates to the nutrition standards.”
These include, according to USDA:
— Limiting added sugars in certain high-sugar products and, later, across the weekly menu;
— Allowing flavored milk in certain circumstances and with reasonable limits on added sugars;
— Incrementally reducing weekly sodium limits over many school years; and
— Emphasizing products that are primarily whole grain, with the option for occasional non-whole grain products.
In some of these areas, USDA FNS proposes different options and is requesting input on which of the options “would best achieve the goal of improving child health while also being practical and realistic to implement.”
Specifically for milk, the proposed rule open to public comment contains two options, stating: “Both options would include the new added sugars limit for flavored milk and maintain the requirement that unflavored milk is offered at each meal service.
The two options further restrict flavored milk — even after the added sugars are reduced — as follows:
• Option 1: Allow only unflavored milk for grades K-8 and allow flavored and unflavored for grades 9-12. OR Allow only unflavored milk for grades K-5 and allow flavored and unflavored for grades 6-12. Either proposal would be effective School Year 2025-26.
• Option 2: Continue to allow flavored and unflavored milks for all grades (K-12).
On added sugars affecting the milk as well as other dairy products served in schools, the proposed rule states:
• Limits for grain-based desserts, breakfast cereals, yogurts, and flavored milks, effective in school year (SY) 2025-26.2 are product-based. (This means different rules for different foods).
• Weekly added sugars limit that must average less than 10% of calories per meal, effective school year 2027-28.
Stricter sodium levels are another area of multi-year implementation that will impact cheeses served in schools.
Dairy organizations are noting in their statements that they are looking into the particulars of these changes, and are at least glad to see non-fat and low-fat milk and dairy included but share concern about the proposed flavored milk restrictions.
(In this reporter’s opinion, the food police are going too far. We must find a way to feed and nourish children at school without jeopardizing their actual consumption of nutrient-dense whole foods that strengthen them and help them learn.)
One thing is clear about children. If it doesn’t taste good, they’re not going to consume it. In fact, several surveys indicate that if flavored milk is removed at the grade levels USDA is proposing, school milk sales could drop as much as 40%. This is on top of the 30% drop seen since 2012 when USDA — under then Secretary Vilsack — issued the rule restricting school milk to be fat-free or 1% low-fat unflavored or fat-free flavored options only.
First, USDA removed the fat, which is one element of milk’s flavor, not to mention a wealth of scientific evidence USDA continues to ignore on the health and nutritional benefits of milkfat, especially for growing children. Now, USDA proposes to remove the flavored options of milk until high school (or middle school).
Offering only fat-free and 1% low-fat white milk to elementary and middle-school aged students will be a non-starter for most of them.
Count on this leading to reduced consumption of a most nutrient-dense food and beverage, more wasted milk headed to landfills as the requirement to serve the milk stays intact, and a faster decline in fluid milk consumption into the future.
The proposed rules do not address the role of ‘offer vs. serve’. Currently, many schools allow students to refuse one or two of the meal options to cut down on waste. If fat-free or 1% low-fat white milk is the only milk option for students until 9th grade or 6th grade, count on it being refused, which then produces trends that have cumulative effects on school milk orders.
USDA FNS encourages all interested parties to comment on the proposed school meal standards rule during the 60-day comment period that began February 7, 2023 and ends April 10, 2023.
To read the proposed rule and comment on the docket FNS-2022-0043-0001, click here
Or mail comments to School Meals Policy Division, Food and Nutrition Service, P.O. Box 9233, Reston, Virginia 20195. Reference Docket # FNS-2022-0043-0001
Meanwhile, Congresswoman Elise Stefanik of New York recently introduced — again — her bill requiring schools to offer flavored milk. This was a response in the last legislative session to prevent the New York City mayor and others from removing flavored milk options from schools. It looks like now this is a bill that will directly compete with USDA’s proposed new rule. Interested parties may also want to contact their members of Congress to support the flavored milk bill and to support the choice of whole milk in schools, WIC and other government feeding programs. More on such legislative efforts later.