Young Boy Eating a Sandwich on Whole Wheat Bread


Earlier this month, the USDA announced proposed updates to the school nutrition standards, including stricter limits for sugar and salt. However, when it comes to whole grains, the standards appear to be stuck in time, allowing a generation of children to risk falling short of their recommended whole grain intake.

Currently, school meals are in a period of transitional nutrition standards, a stop-gap solution for the 2022-2023 and 2023-2024 school years. These transitional standards, which require that only 80% of grains offered be whole grain-rich, are meant to balance the supply chain disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic with the need for nutritionally balanced meals. While the transitional standards are not as nutritious as many public health advocates had hoped for, the standards were announced with the understanding that the “USDA is committed to its statutory obligation to develop school meal nutrition standards that are consistent with the goals of the latest Dietary Guidelines, and is committed to working toward this effort immediately following this rule.”

That plan didn’t quite pan out. In the newly announced school nutrition standards, the USDA is proposing two options for meeting whole grain requirements in schools:

  • OPTION 1: Maintain the current whole grains requirement that at least 80 percent of the weekly grains offered are whole grain-rich
  • OPTION 2: Require that all grains offered must meet the whole grain-rich requirement, except that one day each school week, schools may offer enriched grains.

At first glance, 80% whole grain-rich might sound impressive. After all, we are supposed to be making at least half of our grains whole. However, whole grain-rich does not mean whole grain. Whole grain-rich simply means that half or more of the grain ingredients must be whole grain, and the remainder can be enriched. In other words, 80% whole grain-rich is a euphemism for making 40% of your grains whole.

Public health change doesn’t happen overnight, and many of the nutrition proposals in these new standards are introduced in a gradual stepwise fashion (for example, slowly reducing sodium over time). However, when it comes to whole grains, it is unclear why the USDA simply admitted defeat with no plans to align the whole grain requirements with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, even a couple of years down the road.

During listening sessions with stakeholders, the USDA reported that “participants generally supported increasing whole grains in the programs,” and that “schools have been successful in meeting the whole grain-rich standards.” USDA also reported that “industry respondents shared their success developing a wide array of whole grain-rich products” and that “many public comments cited the importance of increasing whole grains in children’s diets.”

One priority that the new nutrition standards are meant to address is the “importance of encouraging meals that meet local and cultural preferences and ensuring the nutrition standards allow them.” What often fails to make headlines, however, is that many whole grains have a rich history in diverse cultural food traditions and are well-received by young diners. For example, banana millet porridge is a popular dish in A Children’s Taste of African Heritage, a cooking and nutrition program for 8–12-year-olds, while brown rice sushi has been a hit at schools in the Midwest. Additionally, kid-friendly favorites like pasta, tortillas, and rice are among the many whole grain rich foods available through the USDA foods program.

Research consistently demonstrates that repeated exposure to whole grains can shift both food preferences and eating habits in favor of whole grain foods. School meals are in an extraordinary position to not only help properly fuel children’s growing brains and bodies, but also to lay the foundation for lifelong healthy habits. Strengthening whole grain requirements in school meals may also help improve their environmental sustainability. In a 2022 study using data from over 2.2 million real-world lunches, researchers found that “increasing whole grain requirements and providing serving size or frequency limits for beef” are the two most effective recommendations for reducing the environmental impacts of the National School Lunch program.

For those interested in contributing to the conversation, the USDA is accepting comments until April 10, 2023. We urge you to join us in advocating for strong whole grain requirements that better align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and help children meet their recommended whole grain intake. (Kelly)

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