Senator Collins Questions USDA’s Strict Nutrition Standards for School Meals
As one Maine school nutrition director told Senator Collins, ‘an uneaten meal is not nutritious’
Washington, D.C.—U.S. Senator Susan Collins, the Vice Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, questioned U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack about a proposed rule that would impose strict new nutrition standards for meals served through the school lunch and breakfast programs. Secretary Vilsack was testifying at an Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on the fiscal year (FY) 2024 budget request for the USDA.
Schools are already serving low-sodium and low-sugar meals in accordance with existing USDA requirements, but the new rules go much further than the current nutritional standards. Senator Collins emphasized that there is widespread agreement that making healthy, nutritious foods available to students is of utmost importance, but that many school nutrition directors have expressed concern that the new rules would degrade taste and lead students to throw away more meals. She quoted one member of the Maine School Nutrition Association from RSU#5 in Freeport, Durham, and Pownal, who recently told her that “an uneaten meal is not nutritious.”
Secretary Vilsack pledged to Senator Collins that USDA takes the advice of school nutritional professionals seriously, and he said that USDA will extend the comment period for the new rule to solicit additional feedback before moving forward.
Mr. Secretary, welcome. I very much appreciated your call earlier this year to discuss with me and to preview USDA's proposed rule that would significantly change the nutritional standards for foods that are served in the school lunch and breakfast programs. I think we can all agree on the need to have healthy, nutritious foods served at school lunches and breakfasts. I recently met with the Maine School Nutrition Association, and they expressed some concerns about the proposed rule. I've forwarded their letter to you, but I want to talk about them here today. First, let me point out that these are nutrition professionals, many of them are registered dieticians. And their concern is that students may simply refuse to eat foods that have been reformulated to meet the standards in the proposed rule. They point out that there are already sodium and sugar requirements and that they are already serving low-sodium and low-sugar products. So, they say that with these additional requirements, to further lower just sugar and sodium in these foods, that the food begins to taste less and less like anything the students have ever eaten, and that it will likely end up filling our garbage cans. Erin Dow, the school nutrition director from Freeport and Durham, Maine, summed it up perfectly in our meeting when she said, “an uneaten meal is not nutritious.” My questions to you are this: first, has the department consulted with the front-line school nutrition directors about this proposed rule? And second, how will USDA ensure that these additional requirements do not result in fewer students eating school meals?
Those are very good questions, Senator, and I appreciate you asking them. First of all, we absolutely have reached out to those who are the professionals, those who were the heroes during the pandemic, who fed so many children and families during the pandemic. And we're certainly respectful of the role that they have played and understand the importance of the role they play now. For that reason, we have reached out to them and we have received input from them. And one of the things we attempted to do with these rules was to provide a longer transition period. The reality is these requirements don't go into effect immediately. They are spaced in over a period of time, which I think is important to note because it gives people an opportunity to make those adjustments. It gives the food industry an opportunity to make those adjustments. I would also point out that many of the reduced sugar products that we're talking about are already in the marketplace, they're already available. And in fact, they're being used in schools today, especially with the adult and child care program, it's embracing, and with some degree of success. I would say that we're also providing grants, particularly for rural schools, to make it a little bit easier for them to respond. And we are understanding that there's a great deal of interest in this. And so we're announcing this week…an…extension of the comment period. So, we're going to provide additional time for people to comment. And I would also point out, I'm pretty proud of this, that we actually made a $10 million award to the Full Plates and Full Potential program in Maine…the purpose of that is to provide help and assistance. So we're doing a lot in this space. And we understand, at the end of the day, I think we all, as you say, we have the same purpose, which is to make sure our kids are fed well.
As the Vice Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Senator Collins is pressing forward with Chairman Patty Murray (D-WA) to hold subcommittee hearings on the President’s budget. These hearings provide an important opportunity to assess our country’s needs for the coming year and will help guide Senators Collins and Murray’s efforts to write the annual government funding bills.
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