Chocolate milk can stay in school lunch program, Biden administration decides

Chocolate and regular milk in glasses(Getty Images/iStockphoto/razmarinka)

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Elementary school cafeterias will be allowed to continue serving flavored milk such as chocolate and strawberry, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Wednesday. The Biden administration had initially floated a ban aimed at cutting consumption of added sugars by younger children.

The decision is one of several changes now locked in by the department’s Food and Nutrition Service to its sweeping update to requirements that govern school meal programs. First proposed in February 2023, the updates are now set to take effect for the 2025 school year. 

“School meals matter. In some cases, in many cases, in far too many cases, it is often the only meal or meals that youngsters may get during the day,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters Tuesday ahead of the announcement.

Vilsack said the department had fielded more than 136,000 comments on their initial proposal, which had been widely hailed by public health experts for creating limits for the first time on added sugars and stepping up targets to reduce sodium.

However, some groups also voiced frustration with the department over some proposals they worried would be difficult to meet

“With no end in sight to supply chain and labor challenges, most school meal programs nationwide simply lack the capacity to meet these proposed nutrition mandates,” the School Nutrition Association said in comments last year on the proposal.

School districts making good-faith efforts to meet the new guidelines next year would not face financial penalties if they fell short, USDA officials pledged, though they disputed claims that most districts would not be able to meet the standards.

Department officials said the cost associated with the changes was “very, very modest compared to the overall size of the program” making up just around 1% of the bill footed by school food service programs over the coming years. 

“The expectation and anticipation is, given the transition period that we have built into the rule, that we are going to see compliance. As has been indicated, the industry is already working on providing many of the products that will meet the standards,” said Vilsack.

Some comments had also questioned whether some of the department’s proposals to crack down on unhealthy ingredients could backfire, encouraging more students to skip eating school lunch or swapping out for far more unhealthy options.

The USDA had proposed limiting flavored milk after an analysis found it was the largest source of added sugars in schools, making up around half in lunches from students drinking options like chocolate or strawberry-flavored milk instead of plain, unflavored versions.

That move would risk discouraging students from drinking milk altogether, some health experts and the dairy industry argued, losing out on its nutritional benefits.

Vilsack said the USDA had worked with the dairy industry and credited milk producers for a pledge to reduce added sugar in school milk products. 

In its release, the USDA said milk processors making up more than 90% of the nation’s supply to schools had committed to reformulating their products to meet new added sugars limits on flavored milk.

“The challenge, I think, is to make sure that children have access and actually consume the milk. And I think most school nutrition officials would tell you that youngsters certainly gravitate towards the flavored milk option,” said Vilsack.

Vilsack suggested some school districts might still elect not to serve chocolate and strawberry milk to come up with menus that fall under the new more stringent federal limits on added sugars overall in meals.

“We thought that it could fit within the decision making that would be made at the local level. Obviously it’s a decision that each school district can make,” he said.

The final rule also stops short of more ambitious sodium cuts the department had proposed phasing in until 2030, adding up to a 30% reduction in the amount that school lunches would have over the course of a week. 

Instead, schools will only “need to slightly reduce” sodium in their breakfasts and lunches by Fall 2027. 

“This change still moves our children in the right direction and gives schools and industry the lead time they need to prepare,” the department said in its release. 

A large reason for the change is Congress, Vilsack said, which intervened with a clause passed during the last budget process to decide this. The final changes will amount to only a 10% reduction in sodium across school breakfast meals and a 15% reduction in sodium across lunch meals.

“It’s very consistent with the congressional directive,” said Vilsack. “In other words, Congress directed us to do this.”

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