USDA Improves School Nutrition Standards

Friends of the Earth Applauds Improvements to USDA’s School Meal Nutrition Standards

New child nutrition meal patterns will better facilitate healthy, plant-forward K-12 menus 

WASHINGTON – Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture published a Final Rule updating nutrition standards for child nutrition programs, including school lunch and breakfast.  

Friends of the Earth – along with dozens of other organizations and thousands of students, parents, school foodservice professionals, and other stakeholders – advocated for changes to the child nutrition meal patterns that would better facilitate healthy, plant-forward menus and increased availability of plant-based, culturally appropriate meal options. Plant-based foods, which contain no animal products, and plant-forward menus, which feature plant-based proteins alongside some animal products, are critical to aligning school meal programs’ intent to serve all children and offer a variety of healthy, fiber-rich options.  

Several of these changes were incorporated into the Final Rule:  

  • Establishing stricter limits on sodium and added sugar 
  • Providing greater flexibility for school districts to serve beans, peas and lentils as part of entrees, which will help to diversify center-of-the-plate protein sources 
  • Allowing nuts and seeds to credit for the full meats/meat alternates meal component 
  • Allowing bean dips like hummus to be served as a Smart Snack 
  • Providing more flexibility to offer traditional Indigenous foods  
  • Making it easier to purchase local food 


“Healthy, plant-forward school menus are a tremendous win for nutrition, student choice, equity and inclusion, and climate and conservation,” said Chloë Waterman, senior program manager for Friends of the Earth. “Our nation’s children are counting on their schools to offer meals aligned with their cultural, ethnic, religious, health, and philosophical needs and preferences. Plant-based meal options ensure students who need to eat plant-based foods do not go hungry at school and give students who prefer eating plant-based options that choice.  

“We urge USDA to support school districts and state agencies in leveraging these improved meal patterns to expand the availability of healthy, plant-based, and culturally appropriate meal options through guidance, technical assistance and financial support.” 

However, USDA missed an important opportunity to fully align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and improve student health by continuing to allow flavored dairy milk, the largest source of added sugars in the school meal program.  

Beyond pushing to restrict flavored cow’s milk, Friends of the Earth and members of the Healthy Future Students and Earth Coalition have long advocated for changes that would remove barriers for students to access non-dairy milk options, which is especially important for students of color who experience high rates of lactose intolerance.  

In the Final Rule, USDA acknowledged that the statute constrained the agency in addressing these barriers but further clarified existing law that schools must provide a fluid milk substitute in cases where students have a disability (and that lactose intolerance is considered a disability) and may provide a fluid milk substitute in non-disability cases upon written request from a parent or guardian. USDA indicated that it will consider offering guidance and best practices to schools and state agencies to simplify the process for students to access non-dairy milk options within the statutory limitations.  

USDA will have more opportunities to advance equitable, inclusive plant-forward meal patterns through technical assistance and guidance to supplement these regulatory changes. Friends of the Earth and members of the Healthy Future Students and Earth Coalition are urging USDA to: 

  • Encourage school districts to offer daily plant-based options beyond nut butter sandwiches through guidance, consistent with a Congressional directive included in the FY 2022 agricultural appropriations bill, and provide technical assistance and funding within its current authorities  
  • Encourage school districts to offer non-dairy milk upon written request from a parent or guardian and provide guidance, best practices, and template request forms to state agencies and school districts for both disability and non-disability substitutions 
  • Allow pulse-based pasta to credit as a meat alternate, regardless of whether it is served alongside a visually recognizable meat/meat alternate 
  • Allow beans, peas and lentils – as well as tofu and soy products – to qualify as a meat alternate even if they are not visually recognizable, under certain circumstances 


The Healthy Future Students and Earth Coalition will continue advocating for the Healthy Future Students and Earth Act, legislation introduced by Representatives Velázquez and Bowman to establish a new voluntary grants program to support school districts in expanding and marketing plant-based options and remove barriers for students to access culturally appropriate, non-dairy milk options.  

Friends of the Earth submitted detailed comments on the Proposed Rule in spring 2023. Learn more about our Climate-Friendly School Food Program and the resources we offer at 

Contact: Shaye Skiff, Friends of the Earth, [email protected]  





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