In 2010, the USDA updated school meal standards to include three stepped sodium reduction targets for schools to reach over ten years.However, these standards were recently weakened over concerns regarding the availability and student acceptance of lower sodium, healthier meals. The objectives of this study were to examine the availability and student’s consumption of lower-sodium, healthier school meals.
In fall 2018, plate waste data was collected on two non-consecutive days at 13 schools among n=1957 students in grades 3-8. The participating schools were in a large, urban school district that provided different types of meals, including standard meals (n=2 schools), enhanced meals with more fresh vegetables (n=2 schools), and pre-packaged meals (n= 9 schools). The district provided food composition data information for all foods served. School meal consumption was examined using mixed-model ANOVA, accounting for repeated measures of students and school as a random effect, adjusted for students’ sex and grade, and the school meal type (i.e. standard, enhanced, and pre-packaged).
The majority (89.5%) of the meals served (i.e. entrée, milk, fruit, and vegetable combined) met the USDA’s Target 2 sodium levels of ≤935mg, and 32.2% of the meals served met the Target 3 sodium levels of ≤640mg. Compared with students who selected higher sodium meals, students who selected meals meeting the lower, Target 2 sodium levels consumed on average 9% more of their meal (73.4% vs 63.2%; p= 0.0001). There were no significant differences in consumption of meals meeting the lowest, Target 3 sodium levels compared with higher sodium meals (≥Target 2 sodium levels; 70.6 vs 71.1% p=0.77).
The results of this study suggest that lower sodium school meals are available, and that lower sodium foods do not necessarily drive down palatability and increase food waste. Policies to further delay or weaken the sodium standards are not warranted.