School Meals Corporate Report Card 2021

Two schoolchildren taking their full lunch trays from the service counter

CSPI is pleased to release our 2021 School Meals Corporate Report Card. With nearly 30 million students receiving school meals and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy and food and nutrition insecurity, healthy school meals are more important than ever. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) of 2010 strengthened nutrition standards for school meals, snacks, and beverages. As a result of the HHFKA, school meals contain more whole grains, fewer calories, less salt, and more fruits and vegetables. Despite the success of the updated nutrition standards, they have been the subject of fierce political attacks. Several attempts to weaken the standards have impacted students’ ability to receive meals containing safer sodium levels and enough whole grains at school. For instance, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) implemented a rule in 2018 that weakened sodium reduction, whole grains, and milk standards. A federal court struck down that rule in a lawsuit brought forth by CSPI against the USDA, effectively reinstating the updated standards based on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).

Now the USDA needs to update compliance deadlines for the sodium reduction standards and align the overall nutrition standards with the most recent 2020-2025 DGA. To align with the revised recommendations in the 2020 DGA, the USDA must maintain the 100-percent whole-grain-rich standard, strengthen the sodium reduction standards for younger children, and establish a new added sugars standard for meals, snacks, and beverages. Furthermore, there are public health concerns about certain artificial sweeteners and synthetic dyes in school foods. In particular, we are concerned that if the USDA were to establish an added sugars standard, food manufacturers would substitute harmful artificial sweeteners for added sugars.

This report provides a detailed picture of the extent to which the major school foodservice companies:

  1. currently meet the existing whole-grain-rich and sodium reduction standards (Target 2 and Target 3),
  2. would meet an added sugars standard consistent with the 2020 DGA (that no more than 10 percent of calories come from added sugars), and
  3. would use no harmful artificial sweeteners and synthetic dyes.

This report highlights the progress made by the largest foodservice companies to meet the whole grain and sodium standards (particularly Target 2). Moreover, it indicates these companies are well-positioned to meet additional standards that reduce added sugars and eliminate artificial sweeteners and synthetic dyes. These findings should encourage foodservice companies to support strong, science-based nutrition standards and prioritize reformulation of their remaining products that do not comply with these standards.

In light of these findings, we urge the USDA to:

  1. Maintain the 100 percent whole-grain-rich standard and begin enforcing this standard in School Year 2022-2023. Given the very high degree of compliance in many minor food groups, it is evident that the 100 percent whole-grainrich standard in schools is achievable. Companies should reformulate the minority of products that are not wholegrain-rich to bring their entire portfolio into compliance and support schools in meeting this standard.
  2. Extend the compliance dates for sodium Targets 2 and 3 with a short but realistic timeframe and provide robust technical assistance. We recommend that the USDA extend the compliance dates given that our analysis shows that Target 2 is imminently achievable and companies are progressing toward Target 3. In addition, the foodservice industry should prioritize reformulating the remaining products that do not meet Targets 2 and 3.
  3. Establish a sodium Target 4 with a more extended timeframe for compliance to align school meals with the 2020 DGA recommendations for safe sodium consumption for younger children. While the 2020 DGA maintains that no more than 2,300 mg sodium is safe for ages 14 y and up, the new recommendations reduce sodium limits to ≤ 1,500 mg/day for children ages 4-8 y and to ≤ 1,800 mg/day for children ages 9-13 y. Thus, Target 4 should be the final target level for sodium reduction in grades K-8.
  4. Establish a new added sugars standard consistent with the 2020 DGA recommendation limiting added sugars consumption to 10 percent of meal calories from added sugars. We urge the USDA to establish a short timeline for compliance. Our analysis shows that many existing products would meet the standard. For example, nearly all companies had ≥ 75 percent compliance for foods that are top sources of added sugars in breakfast (excluding flavored milk). We propose the standard limit the average added sugars over the week, similar to the current sodium standard which is averaged and the current saturated fat standard which is no more than 10 percent of total calories come from saturated fat over the week. Foodservice industry product reformulation should prioritize the leading sources of added sugars in schools meals, particularly for breakfast: flavored skim milk; sweetened cereals; condiments and toppings; and muffins and sweet/quick breads.
  5. Phase out harmful artificial sweeteners and synthetic dyes quickly, given that our analysis shows many company products are free of harmful sweeteners and dyes already.