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Florida school meal programs prep for new USDA rules that limit added sugars

Students will see changes to school food starting the 2025-2026 school year.
Students will see changes to school food starting the 2025-26 school year. In Marion County, any new options will be tested by kids in the district first.

The Department of Agriculture announced new nutrition standards for schools that will limit added sugars for the first time. The new rule also trims sodium in kids' meals.

Florida schools are getting ready to implement new federal standards aimed at making school breakfasts and lunches healthier for students.

The meal makeovers limit added sugars for the first time, the Department of Agriculture announced Wednesday.

The rule also trims sodium, although not by the 30% first proposed in 2023. And it continues to allow flavored milks — such as chocolate milk — with less sugar, rather than adopting an option that would have offered only unflavored milk to the youngest kids.

The rules take effect this July, but school lunch programs have until the 2025-26 school year to start making these changes, starting with high-sugar foods such as cereal, yogurt and flavored milk. By the fall of 2027, added sugars in school meals would be limited to no more than 10% of the total calories per week for breakfasts and lunches, in addition to limits on sugar in specific products.

2024 Updates to the School Nutrition Standards – Overview

Officials had proposed to reduce sodium in school meals by as much as 30% over the next several years. But after receiving mixed public comments and a directive from Congress included in the fiscal year 2024 appropriations bill approved in March, the agency will reduce sodium levels allowed in breakfasts by 10% and in lunches by 15% by the 2027-28 school year.

Marion County Public Schools nutritionist Sonia Siegel said the new rules will switch up what kids see at breakfast and lunch at school. But she said any new options will be tested by kids in the district first.

“As manufacturers roll out items that meet the guidelines, we will test them with students and we'll try to put those that are the most popular on the menu to meet the guidelines. So, we definitely consider student preference and taste and what's trending. So, I see this being a trend from sweet to maybe a little bit more of savory or spicy,” Siegel said.

“There will be dietary limits on the way we analyze our menus by nutrients. And those will limit sugars to no more than 10% of calories across the week. And so, it'll change drastically at that point, and we're hoping that manufacturers have had an opportunity to catch up with the adjustments. So, the products that we're able to provide to students are still high in variety and acceptability.”

 Schools will start making changes in fall of 2024.
This is a timeline of the USDA changes and when they will be applied, year by year.

Schools will also be required to offer vegetarian and culturally appropriate menus including kosher and halal food items.

The aim is to improve nutrition and align with U.S. dietary guidelines in a program that provides breakfasts to more than 15 million students and lunches to nearly 30 million students every day at a cost of about $22.6 billion per year.

“All of this is designed to ensure that students have quality meals and that we meet parents’ expectations,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Copyright 2024 Central Florida Public Media. To see more, visit Central Florida Public Media.

Danielle Prieur