A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

USDA halts program to reduce salt in school lunches; experts says sale levels ‘dangerously high’

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service has announced that it’s halting an Obama-era plan to gradually reduce the amount of salt in school lunches each year. But the new plan would keep current sodium level targets unchanged through 2019.

“Those targets are currently not more than 1,230 mg per meal for elementary, 1,360mg for middle and 1,420 mg for high schools,” Maria Danilova reports for the Associated Press.

The targets cover only meals served to students at breakfast and lunch, but not a la carte items sold to students during meal times or vending machines and other sources of non-meal food sales. Public schools nationwide require that all such non-meal foods meet the nutritional requirements of the USDA’s Smart Snacks Standard, first implemented in 2014. Those standards require that snacks be lower in sodium.

Margo Wootan with the Center for Science in the Public Interest said that the current sodium levels allowed in school meals are too high, and said the high school sodium target is two-thirds of a child’s daily recommended intake.

“This is locking in dangerously high levels of salt in school meals,” she told Danilova.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention backs up this claim, saying that about 90 percent of school-age U.S. children eat too much sodium daily, and that 1 in 6 children have raised blood pressure (which can be lowered partly with a healthy diet that includes less sodium). In Kentucky, 33.5 percent of children age 10-17 are overweight or obese, compared to 31.2 percent nationwide. A diet high in sodium is strongly associated with obesity.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has criticized the sodium restrictions, saying that children won’t eat the healthier meals and that food gets thrown away.

The USDA is also keeping in place a program that allows school districts to opt out of a requirement to supply whole grains in lunches, if the schools feel they can’t procure enough whole-grain products.

Kentucky Health News

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