The USDA Extends Deadline to Lower Salt in School Meals Once Again
Challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic push back target dates to lower sodium levels in meals, giving schools more flexibility.
According to the CDC 1, 90% of children ages six to eighteen consume too much sodium, and one-in-six kids have elevated blood pressure. Statistics like these spurred the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to rule in 2012 2 that school meal programs reduce their meals' salt content over ten years.
The sodium goals were grouped into three different target dates: 2014-2015, 2017-2018, and 2022-2023. The ruling also required schools to offer flavored low-fat milk options and allowed for half of the weekly grains in the menus to be whole grain-rich.
In 2018 3 , contention swirled as the USDA, and the Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) tried to loosen the target goals for sodium. In April of 2020, the courts struck down the rule after The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), and Healthy School Food Maryland filed a lawsuit challenging the 2018 rule.
The CSPI and Healthy School Food Maryland argued that the 2018 rule significantly weakened nutritional standards and put the health of millions of children (especially those from low-income families) at risk. The courts agreed, and they reinstated the 2012 reduced-sodium targets.
Yet, in the face of the challenges brought on by the pandemic, on November 25, 2020 4 , the USDA once again ruled to extend the two tiers of the sodium targets. This extension eliminated the third tier. The USDA targets can be seen in the chart below 5 . Note that the dates for the sodium goals have not yet been changed. The first tier target dates are 2023-2024, and the second tier dates are 2024-2025.
It's unclear what the future holds. Further socioeconomic challenges brought on by the pandemic could push these targets back even more. What is clear is that the health effects of sodium in children's diets are at the forefront of parents and legislators' minds. Food manufacturers, especially those with products commonly used in schools, should be working towards reducing the salt levels in their foods.
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