School Meal Flexibilities for School Year 2017–18

IMG_8886The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 brought many improvements to the School Nutrition Programs (SNP) to improve meal quality and access. New regulations require school meals to provide more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and low-fat milk. The standards were implemented gradually, over multiple years, giving school district staff and students time to adjust to the changes. However, schools and the food industry have expressed the need for additional time and assistance to effectively achieve changes in the school meal patterns, including those related to sodium and whole grains.

Whole Grain‐Rich (WGR) Requirement

State agencies may approve exemptions for specific products if the School Food Authorities (SFA) can prove hardship in procuring, preparing, or serving compliant whole grain‐rich products that are accepted by students. Qualifying food items contain 100% whole-grain or a blend of at least 50% whole‑grain meal and/or flour along with enriched meal and/or flour. In the week(s) when a WGR-exempted item is offered, the SFA must ensure that at least half of the grain items offered that week are WGR.

Sodium Limits 

The USDA updated school meal nutrition standards also established three sodium targets to be phased in over a 10-year period, with specific levels for students in three grade ranges. Schools were expected to comply with the sodium Target 1 levels by SY 2014–15, the Target 2 levels by SY 2017–18, and the final target levels by SY 2022–23. It was estimated that in the SY 2017-18, schools would reach Target 2 (about 1000 mg of sodium per meals). However, schools continue to struggle reaching Target 1, which means offering school meals with about 1300 mg instead of what they usually serve which is closer to 1500 mg or higher. Ultimately the goal is Target 3, reducing about 50% of sodium (~750 mg) in each meal by the year 2023.

Low‐Fat, Flavored Milk 

State agencies may grant certain SFAs exemptions allowing service of low‐fat, (1%) flavored milk. However, schools must demonstrate hardship by documenting a reduction in student milk consumption or an increase in school milk waste.

How this plays a role in the community

More than 50% of children in California qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. These are kids who rely on the school meal program for 35-50% of their calories. It is also alarming that a new study published by the New England Journal of Medicine showed that more than 50% of today’s children will be obese by the age of 35. Therefore, the school meal program plays an important role. If you believe your child’s food school program may not follow a healthy diet as you would expect for your family, it would be best for you to prepare home cooked meals as shown on today’s segment on Fox40 news.

Tips for packing healthy school lunch:

  • Give your kids healthy food options from each food group and let them make the final decisions on what goes in their lunch
  • Take them grocery shopping with you so they can have a sense of autonomy in their food selection
  • Turn healthy foods into FUN foods! Make shapes and colorful designs they will enjoy eating with their entire senses
  • Incorporate all food groups:
    • Fruits: fresh, frozen, dried, canned, baked or pureed
    • Veggies: fresh, frozen, baked or dried (kale or beet chips)
    • Lean protein: baked chicken, hard boiled eggs, beans or nuts (be aware of nut allergy regulations at your child’s school), meat alternatives
    • Low-fat dairy: milk, cheese, unflavored yogurt or dairy alternatives
    • Whole Grains: pita, sprouted wheat bread or tortillas wraps, lentil or quinoa pasta
    • Healthy fats: avocado, nuts or seeds
  • Pack them in a FUN container. I LOVE the bento box from PlanetBox since it fits the portions perfectly, keeps them separated, made with stainless steel so no lingering smells, dishwasher safe and BPA free. Its carrier has great additional compartments for other snacks or utensils. Check them out here.


You can view this policy memo on the USDA School Meals Policy Web page at

Ward ZJ et al. Simulation of Growth Trajectories of Childhood Obesity into Adulthood. N Engl J Med. 2017;377:2145-2153.

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