Availability of Lower-Sodium School Lunches and the Association with Selection and Consumption among Elementary and Middle School Students

Published:October 21, 2020DOI:



      During 2010, the US Department of Agriculture updated the school meals standards, including three progressively decreasing sodium targets. The Target 1 standards went into effect in 2014, but during 2018, the US Department of Agriculture delayed the Target 2 standards until 2024 and eliminated the Target 3 standards citing concerns regarding the availability and acceptability of lower-sodium foods. In addition, there are currently no sugar standards, and it is unknown whether sugar is substituted for salt in lower-sodium school foods.


      To examine the availability, selection, and consumption of school lunches already in alignment with the Target 2 and 3 sodium levels and the association between sodium and sugar.


      An observational cafeteria-based study conducted during fall 2018.

      Participants and setting

      Students (n = 1985) in grades three through eight attending 13 elementary/kindergarten through eighth-grade schools in a large, urban school district in New England.

      Main outcome measures

      Availability, selection, and consumption were examined using plate waste methodology.

      Statistical analyses performed

      Mixed-model analysis of variance accounting for student demographic characteristics with schools/students as a random effect (students nested within schools) were used to examine differences in availability, selection, and consumption. Linear regression was used to examine the association between sodium and sugar in the school foods.


      The majority of meals selected (87%) and consumed (98%) were already in alignment with the Target 2 standards. There were significant inverse associations between sodium levels and consumption; each 100-mg increase in sodium was associated with a decrease in consumption by 2% for entrées (P = 0.002) and 5% for vegetables (P = 0.01). When examining the association between sodium and sugar, each 10-mg reduction in sodium was associated with 1-g increase in sugar among entrées (P < 0.0001), whereas there was a significant positive association between sodium and sugar with vegetables and condiments.


      This study provides some evidence that schools may already have the ability to provide lower-sodium meals that are acceptable to students, and therefore the recent rollbacks to the sodium standards may be unwarranted. Study findings suggest that the US Department of Agriculture should take under consideration policies that would limit added sugar for school meals as sugar may be substituted for salt.


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      J. F. W. Cohen is an associate professor, Department of Health Sciences, Merrimack College, North Andover, MA, and adjunct associate professor,Department of Nutrition, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard University, Boston, MA.


      S. Richardson is a doctoral degree student, Department of Nutrition, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard University, Boston, MA.


      C. A. Roberto is an associate professor, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.


      E. B. Rimm is a professor, Departments of Nutrition and Epidemiology, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard University; and Channing Division of Network Medicine, Department of Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA.