What’s Inside? (Table of Contents)

  • Intro
  • What are “Rules” vs. “Laws” in General? Why is it Important to Advocate?
  • What are the Child Nutrition Program Rules and Why are They Important?
  • Rule Change Highlights
  • How Can I Learn More and Take Action?

On February 7, 2023, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced proposed rule changes to its child nutrition program standards. This will have a huge impact on school, after-school, and early child care meal programs. Before implementing these proposed changes, USDA is asking individuals and organizations to share feedback on how these changes would affect people and what to keep in mind when implementing.

The proposed rule changes include the following:

  • Expansion of local purchasing (a.k.a. “Geographic Preference”)
  • School nutrition standards, including added sugars, milk, grains, and sodium
  • Changes in professional standards for school nutrition careers 
  • Increased focus on traditional foods and menu planning for American Indian and Alaskan Native students
  • Increase in Buy American policies
  • And more

National Farm to School Network (NFSN) is excited that a number of our longtime policy priorities were adopted in these proposed rule changes, including buying local, strides in equity, and better career access.

More work is needed to make sure the most helpful rule change proposals become officially adopted. NFSN conducted a series of listening sessions and a survey from partners to put together and submit comments on behalf of the network. At the same time, we want to encourage YOU and your organization to consider submitting comments individually so that USDA can hear from a variety of relevant voices.

NFSN is invested in lifting the voices of people directly involved with school meals and other child nutrition programs because some of these changes, if done right, can help change these programs so their decision-making can be less focused on the bottom dollar and more based on values that better serve their students and communities.

A question we want you to consider as you advocate submit comments: How can USDA’s rules be implemented in ways that help make your values-based decisions more feasible?

Comments are due May 10, 2023. Continue reading for more information on the proposed changes, why they’re important, and how you can take action.

What are “Rules” vs. “Laws” in General? Why is it Important to Advocate?

Many people are aware about voting during election season. We vote for certain laws, and we vote for the individuals to represent us, including federal (Senators, House Representatives, and presidents) and state representatives (Senators, House Reps, and governors), plus other representatives like city council members, school board members, etc.

After being elected, our representatives propose bills and vote to pass them into law. This includes the Farm Bill and Child Nutrition Reauthorization, which NFSN does a lot of advocacy around. It’s easy to forget about this part of advocacy. Some may say things like, “we already voted for them, so there’s nothing we can do.” However, it’s just as important to tell our representatives how we want to be represented once they enter office.

After a law is passed, it’s then the responsibility of the different departments like USDA to take those laws and put them into action. Bills are often written with a degree of vagueness, and they can be open to interpretation on how the actual processes and logistics will go. This is called rule-making. This is yet another stage in the policy process where advocacy can come into play. It’s important to advocate for rules like the Child Nutrition Program rules to make sure they are implemented in ways that help the people affected.

What are the Child Nutrition Program Rules and Why are They Important?

In 1980, the federal government released the first Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA). It was then established that USDA’s child nutrition programs must align with the up-to-date scientific evidence on a healthy diet set forth in the guidelines. USDA translates these high-level guidelines into specific rules for things like sodium levels or servings of vegetables. The standards are also important because they set rules for other aspects of how federal program funds are used, such as purchasing products.These rules directly affect school, after-school, and early care meals (as well as adult care food programs).

The current rules that are in place through the next school year were issued in 2022 as a temporary, transitional policy. The new proposed rules are called “durable rules,” meaning they will remain in place permanently until the next DGA update, which happens every five years.  However, it’s very possible that they will remain in place for an even longer time period if the DGA do not dramatically change.

Rule Change Highlights

NOTE: This is a simplified version of the changes. For fuller details, see “How Can I Learn More and Take Action” below.

Geographic Preference Expansion (i.e. Local Purchasing)

This rule change would simplify and expand local purchasing guidelines for schools. Current rules allow local purchasing as one of many factors schools can use to award a food vendor in a competitive bid. This rule change would allow child nutrition program operators to consider “local” a necessary factor that vendors must meet in a competitive bid.

NFSN strongly supports this rule change as complex purchasing policies for school meals are one of the biggest barriers for schools and early care and education sites to work with local, beginning, and small producers. This rule change would support local farmers and economies as well as help schools serve more fresh, local foods to students.

School Nutrition Standards

USDA sets specific standards that all child nutrition program operators must comply with and document in order to receive reimbursement for meals. These include the following:

  • Added Sugars: The proposed rule would create a limit on added sugars in all child nutrition programs (school breakfast, school lunch, and the Child and Adult Care Food Program, or CACFP). A product-based limit would begin in School Year 2024-2025 for grain-based desserts, breakfast cereals, yogurt, and flavored milk (see the proposed limits on grams of added sugar for each product here). This would replace the current weekly maximum limit that is in place for CACFP. Beginning in SY27-28, there would be an additional limit to ensure that, on average throughout the week, no more than 10 percent of calories per meal are coming from added sugars. “Added sugars” means products like cane or beet sugar, corn syrup, honey, maple syrup or agave, or other sweetener products containing calories. The proposed rule does not contain specifics about artificial sweeteners or products like stevia but commenters are encouraged to share their views with USDA. 
  • Milk: Current standards allow low-fat or fat-free flavored milk (such as chocolate milk) for all K-12 grade levels, in addition to unflavored milk. The proposed rule asks whether flavored milk should be limited to Grades 9-12, Grades 6-12, or allowed for all grades as it is currently.  
  • Sodium: The proposed rule would replace the current sodium targets with phased-in reductions. School breakfast would have a 10% reduction in the sodium limit in SY5-26, and another 10% reduction beginning SY2027. School lunch would have 10% reductions in SY25, SY27, and SY29. You can see the numeric limits for each phase and age group here.
  • Whole Grains: The current standards require 80% of products each week to be “whole grain rich.” The proposed rule asks for input on whether to keep the current standard or update to a requirement that all grains meet the whole grain-rich requirement, with the exception that enriched grains may be offered one day each school week.
  • Substituting Vegetables for Fruits at Breakfast: The proposed rule would allow providers to substitute vegetables for fruits in breakfast (such as potatoes) if the menu includes other “vegetable subgroups” (such as  leafy greens or carrots) on the other days. You can see the full breakfast Meal Pattern here for further details.
  • Nuts and Seeds: Currently, nuts and seeds can only count toward 50% of the “meat/meat alternate” requirement for a reimbursable meal, and must be accompanied by another protein food (such as cheese). The proposed rule would allow nuts and seeds to fully count toward the “meat/meat alternate” requirement, and renames the category to “proteins” for better clarity in meal planning.
  • NSLP Afterschool Snacks: The NSLP Afterschool Snacks program standards would now align with the CACFP snack standards. This change would require NSLP afterschool snack to contain at least two out of five component categories (milk, vegetables, fruits, grains, or meat/meat alternate). 
  • Competitive Foods: The rule keeps standards for calories, sodium, fats, and total sugars in USDA-designated “Smart Snacks,” and adds an exemption for hummus that allows it to be sold as a Smart Snack.

USDA is seeking feedback from the public and communities involved in administering or using these programs. 

Traditional Foods and Menu Planning Options

The rule changes include three specific regulations on traditional foods and menu planning:

  • It explicitly clarifies that traditional foods may be served as part of a reimbursable school meal
  • It establishes that the definition of “traditional foods” refers to a “food that has traditionally been prepared and consumed by an [American] Indian Tribe,” per the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2014
  • It expands the ability to substitute vegetables for grains in Tribally operated schools, schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Education, and schools serving primarily American Indian or Alaska Native children

This rule change could be one step in building a more inclusive school that supports students eating foods reflecting their cultures and supports the farmers that grow those foods. This supports NFSN’s Call to Action, that 100% of communities will hold power in a racially just food system. USDA is asking stakeholders whether this definition of “traditional foods” is the appropriate one. Additionally, USDA requests public input on additional menu planning options that would improve the child nutrition programs for American Indian and Alaska Native children. This is an excellent opportunity to elevate the needs and barriers facing child nutrition providers as they try to plan meals and purchase products that celebrate students’ cultures. 

Buy American

Currently, schools are encouraged to buy American but may be exempted when products aren’t easily sourced in the U.S. or there is a significant price difference. However, these exemptions are currently not defined nor documented. This rule change would set a 5% cap on total annual commercial food costs of non-domestic foods, and clarify that over 51% of a food product must consist of agricultural commodities that were grown domestically to count as a “domestic product.” Child nutrition program operators would be required to document their non-domestic food purchases as well as require “Buy American” provisions to be part of a food vendor’s contract.

This approach would dramatically improve USDA’s ability to understand the gaps and market opportunities in the school food value chain, but of course any additional documentation and compliance measures could be burdensome for school nutrition professionals. USDA wants to understand if this approach to limits and documentation will help meet the goal of supporting domestic producers and workers, who risk being undercut by cheaper competition, and supporting school nutrition professionals who may struggle with budget and product availability constraints.

Professional Standards

USDA aims to ease difficulties in hiring and increase professional career pathways in school nutrition. Current Professional Standards for medium and large districts participating in federal child nutrition programs require a degree. The proposed rule would allow medium and large school food authorities to substitute 10 years of school nutrition program experience for a bachelor’s or associate’s degree.

This rule change could remove unnecessary barriers to professional advancement for experienced child nutrition professionals. USDA is especially looking to hear from school nutrition professionals about the possible consequences of this change to make sure they implement this in a way that’s as helpful as possible.

How Can I Learn More and Take Action?

Read about the proposed rule changes and take note of what most directly affects you and your community:

Check out these additional resources from NFSN: 

After you determine which topics to focus on, read USDA’s specific questions for which they are seeking answers.

After you have written down your answers to USDA’s questions, submit your comments (click for instructions). Public comments must be submitted by May 10, 2023.

USDA has identified its specific questions, as well as created the resources/charts in the document above, to help simplify the process for members of the public, and we applaud this step to help people share their values and engage with USDA.

Let’s take action together and make sure our kids and communities are supported.

If you have any questions about the proposed rule changes, contact Karen Spangler at karen@farmtoschool.org