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Strengthening School Meals for Healthier Kids

USDA's school meal programs - the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP) - serve nutritious meals to 30 million children each day to support their growth, learning, and overall health. In close collaboration with our school meals partners, USDA is working toward stronger, healthier school meals to set children up for success.

USDA announced proposed updates to the school nutrition standards. Learn more.


Building Back Better with School Meals roadmap
Updating the School Meal Nutrition Standards

By law, school meals must be based on the goals of the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Therefore, USDA sets school meal nutrition standards to ensure that schools offer students the right balance of nutritious foods and beverages to support good health.

Over the past decade, school nutrition professionals, the school food industry, and other partners have made incredible strides in strengthening the nutrition of school meals; research shows school meals are the healthiest meals children eat in a day! Still, there is more we can do to support child health. USDA is committed to ensuring school meals continue to provide the very best for our children, and we are working with schools, parents, industry, and other school meal partners every step of the way.

For background information on the school meal programs and school meal nutrition standards, see:

Strengthening School Meals for Healthier Kids

lunch tray
Proposed Updates to the School Nutrition Standards

This proposed rule - Child Nutrition Programs: Revisions to Meal Patterns Consistent with the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans - is the next step in continuing the science-based improvement of school meals and advancing USDA’s commitment to nutrition security.

Strengthening School Meals for Healthier Kids

Frequently Asked Questions
How do the school meal programs work?

USDA administers the school meal programs in partnership with state agencies and reimburses schools for the nutritionally balanced meals they provide to kids at a free, reduced-price, or paid rate.

What are the requirements for school meals?

In order to be reimbursed, schools must provide meals that meet the federal nutrition standards. Decisions about the specific foods they serve and how to prepare them are made by local school food authorities. In addition to meeting the nutrition standards, schools must adhere to other program rules, such as requirements for tracking the number of meals served.

What are the benefits of school meals?

School meals are a powerful tool for fighting food insecurity while protecting the future of our nation's children by getting them the nutrition they need. Research has found that school meals are the healthiest meals kids receive each day. Nutritious breakfast and lunch are essential to students' well-being and success in the classroom and have a long-lasting positive impact on the development and growth of children.

What are school meal nutrition standards?

By law, school meals must be based on the goals of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Therefore, the school meal nutrition standards require schools to offer students the right balance of fruits, vegetables, low-fat or fat-free milk, whole grains, and protein foods. In 2012, USDA revised the school meal nutrition standards to include more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and decrease the amount of sodium and trans fats. The school meal nutrition standards also defined calorie minimums and maximums. Research shows these school meal nutrition standards have had a positive and significant effect on the nutritional quality of school meals over the last decade.

How have school meal nutrition standards changed over the past decade?

Starting in the 2012-13 school year, schools began implementing updated school meal nutrition standards that included increased fruit, vegetable, and whole grain requirements, for example, as well as targets for sodium and calorie levels. Overall, most schools successfully implemented the school meal nutrition standards and found them helpful in providing nutritious meals to their students. However, implementation of the standards related to milk, whole grains, and sodium was delayed due to administrative and legislative changes.

Beginning in March 2020, Congress gave USDA the ability to provide a broad range of flexibilities in the school meal programs including adjusting the nutrition requirements to ensure schools could continue serving healthy meals despite the challenges of the pandemic. Schools tackled every obstacle head on with a tireless commitment to ensuring kids had healthy food to eat.

The transitional standards final rule establishes standards for milk, whole grains, and sodium for school years 2022-23 and 2023-24 to give schools and other partners a clear path forward while USDA works with school meal program stakeholders to develop long-term standards. A comparison between the transitional standards and previous standards is available here

Page updated: November 09, 2023