WASHINGTON, D.C., November 24, 2020 — The American Heart Association, the world’s leading voluntary organization focused on heart and brain health, released the following statement in response to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s proposed rule, “Child Nutrition Programs: Flexibilities for Milk, Whole Grains, and Sodium Requirements,” which would roll back school nutrition standards. This is the USDA’s second attempt to weaken these standards. Its first rule was vacated after a federal court ruled the department did not follow proper administrative procedures in developing it. The American Heart Association and other public health organizations filed an amicus brief in that case, which was brought by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Healthy School Food Maryland.

“The USDA has a critical role to play in ensuring that children receive healthy foods in schools. This proposed rule instead poses a threat to our children’s health by weakening sodium and whole grains nutrition standards. These standards were updated in 2012 and set the healthy levels of sodium and whole grains consumption. The changes proposed by USDA in its new proposed rule are unnecessary and put children’s health at risk.

“The 2012 updates resulted in students eating healthier foods in school. USDA data show that the healthiest meals have the highest participation rates, and other studies show stronger nutrition standards help curb childhood obesity. Healthy school foods also help children perform better in school and set them up for success. Instead of building on this success, the proposed rule would put less healthy food on children’s plates.

“We are concerned the USDA continues to delay sodium reduction in children’s diets, a key target to improve heart health. Children who eat high levels of sodium are about 35 percent more likely to have elevated blood pressure, which can ultimately lead to heart disease or stroke. The USDA previously argued that sodium reduction targets should be delayed until the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine updated the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI) for sodium. That report, issued in March 2019, not only reaffirmed the science that sodium consumption should be reduced in children, but it significantly lowered the recommended sodium intake for children between 4 and 13 years of age. This means that even the sodium standards adopted in 2012 are now considered too high for the youngest age groups. It’s time to move forward with sodium reduction targets. The sooner we move forward, the more quickly we can help move children to healthier consumption levels.

“While the USDA reports that the vast majority of schools are providing children with more whole grains, this rule would allow schools to provide only half the recommended amount. The health benefits of whole grains in school meals are a win-win for children and schools by reducing risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity and type 2 diabetes. There is also evidence that people who eat whole grain foods – particularly those high in fiber and low in sugar – have a lower body weight than those who eat fewer whole grains. Unfortunately, children consume too few whole grains and too many refined grains.

“The USDA claims these rollbacks are necessary in part because of concerns about food waste. However, the USDA’s own data, among other studies, show that food waste has either remained the same or decreased since the 2012 updated school nutrition standards. There are several effective strategies to reduce food waste in schools, such as giving students more time to eat; putting recess before lunch; marketing healthy foods to kids; and involving students in meal planning, none of which jeopardize the health of our children.

“The food industry has produced many options for foods with appropriate levels of sodium and whole grain products for school procurement, and it is time the USDA provide the technical assistance needed to ensure all schools – and all school children – have access to the healthiest foods at school.

“While school food service programs are doing their best to feed children during the unprecedented challenge presented by the pandemic, students will eventually return to schools and the classroom. When that happens, it will be more important than ever to ensure that the food being served in schools follow science-based standards to give children the proper nutrition they need to thrive.”

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About the American Heart Association

The American Heart Association is a relentless force for a world of longer, healthier lives. We are dedicated to ensuring equitable health in all communities. Through collaboration with numerous organizations, and powered by millions of volunteers, we fund innovative research, advocate for the public’s health and share lifesaving resources. The Dallas-based organization has been a leading source of health information for nearly a century. Connect with us on heart.orgFacebookTwitter or by calling 1-800-AHA-USA1.   

For Media Inquiries and AHA/ASA Expert Perspective: 214-706-1173

Suzette Harris: suzette.harris@heart.org

For Public Inquiries: 1-800-AHA-USA1 (242-8721)

heart.org and strokeassociation.org