KANSAS CITY — Food-service directors at schools need to be concerned with sodium reduction now as regulations are requiring gradual decreases in school meal programs over the next several years, Carol Chong, national nutrition adviser for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, told attendees at the School Nutrition Association’s Annual National Conference July 16.

Chong said if schools don’t start working on the sodium reduction now, it will be difficult to get up to speed as the regulations gradually go into effect. Federal regulations require that for the 2014-2015 school year lunch meals for children in kindergarten to grade 5 must contain between no more than 1,230 mg of sodium, meals for children in grades six to eight must not exceed 1,360 mg, and meals for teenagers in grades 9 to 12 must contain no more than 1,420 mg.

In school year 2017-2018, regulations will be reduced further to 935 mg or less for kindergarten to grade five, less than 1,035 mg for grades 6 to 8, and less than 1,080 mg for grades 9 to 12. In school year 2022–2023, regulations will be reduced yet again to a final target of no more than 640 mg for kindergarten to grade five, 710 mg for grades six to eight, and 740 mg for grades nine to 12. There also will be similar reductions for breakfast.

“It’s going to have to be a balance of how the menu is presented so that the higher sodium items are balanced throughout the week,” Chong said.

She said one challenge in reducing sodium will be including less cheese. There is a perception children like food items with cheese, but it contains high levels of sodium, she said.

“Putting cheese on top of a hamburger may be something that is going to be changed,” Chong said.

Another one of the major challenges to making the reductions is that most schools use premade products to help with food-safety and labor-costs issues, but these products are often high in sodium, Chong said. Yet, she said manufacturers are working to reduce the sodium in these products, often using herbs or spices for seasoning and taste. With this, she said more ethnic flavors are coming into play. She said these flavors are more potent, so the sodium levels easily may be reduced. She also said frozen products often have less sodium than canned products.

Chong encouraged the use of school gardens to grow herbs and spices. She said while this might not yield enough for an entire school, the school can order the rest and the portion grown will give the children a sense that they helped grow and produce their meals.