Overview of the USDA Proposed Rule for Competitive Foods in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Program

school cafeteria

On Feb. 8, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a proposed rule on nutrition standards for “competitive foods” - a la carte, beverages, and snack food, including vending machines in the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program (NSLP/SBP). The NSLP/SBP were reauthorized with policy changes in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA). The proposed rule requires compliance with existing federal school nutrition standards, including current state and local standards. It provides special exemptions for infrequent school-sponsored fundraisers and provides voluntary standards for beverages and snack foods.


The rule identifies minimum standards for food and beverage requirements, which must be met by school districts, school food authorities, and schools. Comments on the proposed rule are due Tuesday, April 9, 2013.


Competitive foods must meet standards for calories, fat, saturated fat, sugar, and sodium, and have whole grains, low fat dairy, fruits, vegetables, or protein foods as their main ingredients. Under the proposed rule, any food sold in schools must:

  1. Be a fruit, a vegetable, a dairy product, a protein food, a “whole-grain rich” grain product (50 percent or more whole grains by weight or have whole grains as the first ingredient), or a combination food that contains at least ¼ cup of fruit or vegetable; or

  2. Contain 10% of the Daily Value (DV) such as calcium, potassium, vitamin D, or fiber cited as a public health concern in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).

Additionally, foods sold must meet a range of calorie and nutrient requirements:

  • Total fat must be no more than 35 percent of calories; saturated fat must be less than 10 percent of calories; trans fat must be 0g as stated on the label.

  • Snack items shall contain no more than 200 milligrams of sodium. For entrée items, sodium levels must be less than or equal to 480 milligrams per portion.

  • For total sugar levels the proposal includes two alternatives: one is less than or equal to 35 percent of calories and the other is equal to or less than 35 percent of weight.

  • Snack items have a limit on calories of no more than 200 calories per portion. Non- NSLP/SBP entrée items have a calorie limit of no more than 350 calories.


Under the proposal, all schools may sell plain water, plain low fat milk, plain or flavored fat-free milk and milk alternatives permitted by NSLP/SBP, and 100 percent fruit/vegetable juice. The rule proposes to codify the provision in the HHFKA that schools must also make available free drinking water to children during meal times.

  • Portion sizes vary by the age of the students: 8-ounce portions for elementary students and 12-ounce portions for middle and high school students.

  • High schools have the option to include 20-ounce servings or less for calorie-free, flavored and/or unflavored carbonated water and other calorie-free beverages. These beverages must comply with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standard of no more than 5 calories per serving.

  • 12-ounce servings of other beverages are allowed within a specified calorie limit. Two alternatives include either no more than 40 calories per 8 ounce serving or no more than 50 calories per 8 ounce serving. These beverages would not be available during meal service periods.


There would be no limit to the number of fundraisers that sell food items that meet proposed nutrition requirements. However, the HHFKA allows USDA to restrict the number of fundraisers for items that do not meet the proposed nutrition requirements.  Because there is a wide variety of options available regarding the frequency of fundraiser exemptions, USDA includes two alternative approaches that would grant discretion to state agencies with regards to the frequency of fundraiser exemptions and seeks other suggestions in how to regulate this issue. The proposed standards would not apply to non-school hours, weekends, and off-campus fundraising events. 


The USDA will look to the experience of school districts that have adopted or piloted competitive food reforms in recent years to see the effects on school revenue. The proposed rule recognizes that the effects of the proposed changes are uncertain and will be determined by the way schools implement the standards and the responses of students to the new standards.

NCSL is actively engaged in tracking the NSLP/SBP regulations.