USDA issues final rule updating school nutrition standards

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) recently issued a final rule to update its school nutrition standards, requiring changes to school meal programs starting in the 2025-2026 school year. Key changes include new limits on added sugars (first for specific categories of foods and later an overall weekly limit), a 15% reduction in the sodium limit for lunches starting in 2027 (with a 10% reduction for breakfasts), updated whole grains and milk standards, and a new provision related to the Buy American provision.


The final rule1 follows a long procedural historyrelated to the difficulty school operators experienced in meeting USDA’s 2012 school nutrition standards for sodium, milk, and whole grains, which implemented the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Congress and USDA addressed the need for flexibility in multiple appropriations bills and a 2017 interim final rule extending those flexibilities, respectively. In 2018, USDA published a final rule eliminating some of the more restrictive requirements of the original 2012 standards, but in a 2020 decision, a U.S. district court held that this rule violated the Administrative Procedure Act, sending the rule back to the agency for further proceedings. USDA then conducted rulemaking that resulted in a February 2022 final rule that established transitional nutrition standards for school meals. The transitional standards were intended to apply to the 2022-2023 and 2023-2024 school years only, until long-term standards could be established. USDA issued proposed long-term standards in February 2023 based on the goals of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025.3

This rulemaking finalizes the long-term standards with several modifications to the proposed rule.4 While the final rule takes effect for the 2024-2025 school year, USDA is gradually phasing in changes over several years.  As a result, school lunch program operators are not required to make any changes to their menus because of this rulemaking until the 2025-2026 school year at the earliest.

Final Standards

Below we summarize the revised standards for added sugars, sodium, whole grains, and milk in school meals. A chart comparing the transitional school nutrition standards with the new standards is attached as an Appendix.

  1. Added Sugars

The final rule will impose the first-ever added sugars standards in the school meals program and outlines two coordinated approaches intended to reduce added sugars in school meals.  First, USDA will implement product-based quantitative limits for the following products that the agency has identified as the leading sources of added sugars in school meals, beginning school year (SY) 2025-2026:5



Final Added Sugars-Related Limit

Breakfast Cereals

6 g added sugars per dry oz


12 g added sugars per 6 oz (2 g added sugar per 1 oz)

Flavored Milk

10 g added sugars per 8 fl. oz or, for flavored milk sold as a competitive food for middle and high schools, 15g of added sugars per 12 fl. oz.


USDA notes that it collected marketplace data to ensure adequate products would be available within the added sugars limits.

Second, beginning SY 2027-2028 and in addition to the product-specific limits above, USDA will implement a weekly added sugars limit that would apply across the weekly menu and limit added sugars from all menu items to less than 10 percent of calories per week in the school lunch and breakfast programs.7 In adopting the added sugars limits, USDA noted that the Dietary Guidelines 2020-2025 found that 70-80% of school-aged children currently exceed the recommended limit on added sugars of less than 10 percent of daily calories.

  1. Sodium

The transitional standards, which went into effect in SY 2022-2023, required schools to limit the sodium content of breakfasts to 540-640 mg and lunches to 1100-1280 mg per week, depending on students’ ages. The proposed rule contemplated a phased sodium reduction of several 10 percent reductions in sodium per school year.

The final rule did not adopt the phased reduction, and instead requires schools to implement a single sodium reduction of approximately 15 percent for lunch and approximately 10 percent for breakfast by SY 2027-2028.  Final sodium targets will be 935-1080 mg for lunches and 485-570 mg for breakfasts, in comparison to the proposed rule’s targets of 810-935 mg for lunches and 435-520 mg for breakfasts. The final rule emphasizes that these sodium limits apply to the average amount of sodium in lunch and breakfast menus during a school week. They do not apply per meal, per day, or per menu item. The final rule also includes a commitment to conduct a study on potential associations between sodium reduction and student participation in the school lunch program. The new standards are summarized in the following tables.

National School Lunch Program Sodium Limits

Age/Grade Group

Current Sodium Limit: In place through June 30, 2027

Sodium Limit: Must be implemented by July 1, 2027

Grades K-5

< 1,110 mg

< 935 mg

Grades 6-8

< 1,225 mg

< 1035 mg

Grades 9-12

< 1,280 mg

< 1080 mg


National School Breakfast Program Sodium Limits

Age/Grade Group

Current Sodium Limit: In place through June 30, 2027

Sodium Limit: Must be implemented by July 1, 2027

Grades K-5

< 540 mg

< 485 mg

Grades 6-8

< 600 mg

< 535 mg

Grades 9-12

< 640 mg

< 570 mg

  1. Whole Grains

The transitional standards require at least 80 percent of weekly grains offered in school meals to be whole grain-rich (i.e., at least 50 percent whole grain, with all other grain ingredients enriched, bran, or germ).8 USDA proposed two possible alternatives to these standards: maintain the current standard or require that 100 percent of the grain offered must be whole grain-rich on four of five weekdays.

USDA’s final rule maintains the current requirement that at least 80 percent of weekly grains offered in the school nutrition program must be whole grain-rich. This standard is a minimum, which means schools may choose to increase whole grain-rich offerings beyond 80 percent.

To make the requirement clearer, USDA codified the definition of “whole grain-rich” (previously only defined in guidance) to clarify that “whole grain-rich is the term designated by FNS to indicate that the grain content of a product is between 50 and 100 percent whole grain with any remaining grains being enriched.”

  1. Milk

The transitional standards allow schools to offer fat-free and low-fat (1 percent fat) flavored or unflavored milk in reimbursable school meals, for sale as a competitive beverage, in the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), and for participants aged 6 and older in the Special Milk Program (SMP). Unflavored milk must be offered at each school meal. USDA had proposed two possible alternatives to these standards: allow flavored milk for Grades 9-12 only or maintain the current standards.  

In the final rule, USDA chose to maintain the current standards for milk in school meals. Therefore, schools continue to have the option to offer flavored and unflavored fat-free and low-fat milk for lunch and breakfast, subject to the added sugars limits discussed above.

  1. Other Provisions

Finally, the final rule also contains a number of related updates.

  • Buy American:  Current regulations require school food authorities to purchase domestic products to the maximum extent practicable, with limited exceptions related to product availability and cost.9 The final rule maintains and codifies the exemptions to the Buy American provision, but will phase in a 5 percent limit on the amount of non-domestic food purchases a school may make when utilizing the exceptions, starting with a 10 percent limit for SY 2025-2026, an 8 percent limit for SY 2028-2029, and finally the 5 percent limit for SY 2031-2032.  Further, schools must maintain documentation to demonstrate the use of the exceptions. The rule also defines “substantially” to mean that over 51 percent of a food product must consist of agricultural commodities that were grown domestically.
  • Geographic Preference:  The final rule allows the terms “locally grown,” “locally raised,” “locally caught,” and similar requirements to be used as procurement specifications for unprocessed or minimally processed food items. State agencies may adopt their own definition of “local” for geographic preference purposes. 
  • Bean Dip Exception for Competitive Foods:  USDA added bean dip to the list of foods exempt from the total fat standard currently in place for competitive foods (the regulations covering foods sold on school grounds during the school day but outside of the school meal program). The exception will apply to any product marketed as hummus as well as all bean dips made from any variety of beans, peas, or lentils. For non-excepted competitive foods, total fat is not to exceed 35 percent of total calories from fat per item as packaged or served. Saturated fat must be less than 10 percent of total calories per item as packaged or served. Even so, bean dip will continue to be subject to the saturated fat standard for Smart Snacks.

Apart from the bean dip exception and the added sugars limits on flavored milk sold as a competitive food, the final rule does not make changes to the nutrition standards for competitive foods.

Please contact us if you have any questions regarding this or any other matter.

Please click here for a chart comparing the transitional standards with the new standards.



Authored by Elizabeth Fawell, Veronica Colas, and Jamie Hannah.

1 Child Nutrition Programs: Meal Patterns Consistent With the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 89 Fed. Reg. 31962 (Apr. 25, 2024), available here.
2 Our memorandum summarizing the final transitional standards can be found here.
3 See Child Nutrition Programs: Revisions to Meal Patters Consistent With the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 88 Fed. Reg. 8050 (Apr. 10, 2023), available here. Our memorandum summarizing the proposed rules can be found here.
4 This rulemaking also includes finalized meal provisions from a separate proposed rule, Simplifying Meal Service and Monitoring Requirements in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, published in January 2020.
5 The final rule’s product-based limits for breakfast cereals and yogurts will also apply to the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). These limits will go into effect on October 1, 2025.
6 The proposed rule included Grain-based desserts on the list of product-based quantitative limits, but USDA declined to include them in the final rule due to concerns from stakeholders that the rule would negatively impact grab and go breakfasts, which often include grain-based desserts.
7  This final rule is focused on limits for added sugars, not other sweeteners used as sugar substitutes.
8 The original 2012 standards would have required a 100 percent whole grain-rich standard, while the 2018 final rule would have required a 50 percent whole grain-rich standard.
9 The two exceptions apply when: (1) the product is not produced or manufactured in the U.S. in sufficient and reasonably available quantities of a satisfactory quality; or (2) competitive bids reveal the costs of a U.S. product are significantly higher than the non-domestic product.


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