Credit: Lillian Mongeau/EdSource Today

The nutritional quality of K-12 products has improved dramatically since the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 updated nutrition standards in school meals, snacks and beverages.

Yet companies still manage to market and sell nutritional nightmares, like Marshmallow Mateys. A top seller, the cereal is 88% whole grain and contains essential vitamins and minerals. While this may sound like a healthy choice, lurking in the anchor-shaped oat cereal and brightly colored marshmallows are more than three-quarters of a day’s worth of added sugars for an elementary school student, four synthetic food dyes that are associated with adverse behavioral effects in some children, and more salt than a slice of pizza. Post is not alone: Lucky Charms has one less teaspoon of sugar but is otherwise comparable. “Great for breakfast in the classroom,” General Mills says.

Learning why these products are allowed in schools requires a look into federal nutrition standards, politics and the pandemic. In 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act updated nutrition standards in school meals for the first time in decades. The updated standards ensured more fruits, vegetables and whole grains on the tray, with less salt and unhealthy fats. The standards also removed full-calorie soda and some of the worst junk food. Industry quickly mobilized to reformulate their child-oriented products to fit within the new guidelines. Despite this immense progress and research that suggests that healthier meals are associated with higher participation in the program, former U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue under President Donald Trump set out to dismantle the nutrition standards, allowing meals to be too salty and sugary and with more refined grains. Schools were having difficulty identifying healthier alternatives, particularly whole grains and compliant sodium products, he argued.

Several states and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit known as America’s food and health watchdog sued the Department of Agriculture, and a court struck down the rule change last year, but the damage had been done.

Anecdotally, we’ve heard from school nutrition directors that progress has stalled on sodium reduction, fewer whole grains are showing up on the menu and more sugary milk is being served. Moreover, federal waivers allowing schools much-needed flexibility during the pandemic result in the USDA not enforcing the sodium, whole grain and flavored milk requirements.

School nutrition standards are due for an update. The good news? A recent analysis by the Center for Science in the Public Interest of major school food service companies suggests that a brighter future for healthy school meals is within reach.

By law, the school nutrition standards should align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which were updated last year. The updated guidelines maintain that half of grains should be whole and no more than 10% of calories should come from added sugars. The guidelines also reduced the amount of sodium considered safe for younger children.

The analysis found that over 75% of each company’s products were whole grain-rich (51% whole grain). For sodium, close to or all of every company’s products met the second phase of USDA’s sodium reduction for lunch. Sodium reduction in school meals is phased in over 10 years; schools are currently meeting the first phase. In addition, most companies’ products could fit within a new standard that would require meals to contain no more than 10% of calories from added sugars, consistent with the dietary guidelines. Further, nearly all products would meet a proposed synthetic dye- and artificial sweetener-free standard.

Despite the mostly good news, products are still marketed to schools that are too high in sodium and added sugars, are not whole grain-rich and contain artificial sweeteners and synthetic dyes.

In the absence of stronger standards to align school meals with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and avoid harmful additives, the onus is on school nutrition directors to choose the healthier items and avoid the worst ones. Our analysis found that manufacturers often offer better choices alongside their less healthy options. For instance, Schwan Foods, the nation’s largest school food pizza manufacturer, makes an easily compliant whole grain-rich pizza with 470 mg of sodium per slice, but also makes a personal pizza with a whopping 1,100 mg sodium (and a not whole grain-rich crust).

As school nutrition providers, industry and the supply chain begin to pick up the pieces from the pandemic, the USDA must set clear, achievable goals for industry and school food-service professionals, so that school meals can align with the 2020 dietary guidelines. States can, and should, also pass policies to strengthen nutrition standards to prevent future rollbacks.

Earlier this year, California became the first state in the nation to provide free meals for all students. Now, legislators should ensure that these meals are healthy by setting stronger state nutrition standards for school meals. AB 2949, which was introduced in February 2020, would have done exactly that, but it was sidelined by the pandemic.

Now it is up to school meal providers to make healthier choices and for federal and state policymakers to provide clear direction for industry and school nutrition providers and ensure that Lucky Charms, Marshmallow Mateys and other egregiously noncompliant products are not showing up in our kids’ school meals.

•••

Meghan Maroney is a senior policy associate at the Center for Science in the Public Interest a national nonprofit food and nutrition watchdog.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. DrMatt 1 month ago1 month ago

    JudiAU makes some good points. One question: The sentence, "Lucky Charms has one less teaspoon of sugar but is otherwise comparable," was meaningless, since the number of teaspoons of sugar in the other cereal was not stated. If the other cereal had two teaspoons of sugar, then one teaspoon less would be a 50% reduction, i.e., quite significant. But if the other cereal had 10 teaspoons of sugar, then one less teaspoon … Read More

    JudiAU makes some good points.

    One question: The sentence, “Lucky Charms has one less teaspoon of sugar but is otherwise comparable,” was meaningless, since the number of teaspoons of sugar in the other cereal was not stated. If the other cereal had two teaspoons of sugar, then one teaspoon less would be a 50% reduction, i.e., quite significant. But if the other cereal had 10 teaspoons of sugar, then one less teaspoon would be only a 10% reduction — probably not significant. How is the reader to know?

    Replies

    • Smita Patel 1 month ago1 month ago

      That’s a good point, Dr. Matt. Here’s a little more detail from the author on the sugar in those two cereals:

      Four grams of sugar equals 1 teaspoon. Lucky Charms has 19 g of added sugars (so, 19/4 = 4.75 teaspoons) per container, while Marshmallow Mateys has 23 grams of added sugars (divided by 4 = 5.75 teaspoons).

  2. JudiAU 2 months ago2 months ago

    Children deserve better food. They deserve real food baked from scratch and not the petrified cafeteria carb and milk heavy diet. Whole grains are fine. But they deserve nutritious protein sources, well cooked, as well as seasonal fruit and vegetables. And the plastic! My god the plastic! Such wasteful piles of trashes. So much wasted foods. So much drain-clogging milk. My middle schooler was shocked to be commanded to take breakfast even if he didn't … Read More

    Children deserve better food. They deserve real food baked from scratch and not the petrified cafeteria carb and milk heavy diet. Whole grains are fine. But they deserve nutritious protein sources, well cooked, as well as seasonal fruit and vegetables. And the plastic! My god the plastic! Such wasteful piles of trashes. So much wasted foods. So much drain-clogging milk. My middle schooler was shocked to be commanded to take breakfast even if he didn’t want it and throw it away “to keep the numbers high.” It was not a great moment for school authority.

    Our charter school cooks from scratch by full time staff with benefits. Lunch comes closer to $4.50 with a small added premium to subsidize the FRPL kids. It is good food, that kids eat. My kids deserve it. So does everyone else.