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Trump’s administration let schools serve unhealthy lunches again. States are suing.

The states argue that the lax nutrition regulations are a threat to students’ health. 

Cafeteria workers in a school stand behind their hot food serving line.
A New York public school serves lunch on March 11, 2019.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Six states and Washington, DC, led by New York Attorney General Letitia James, are fighting President Trump’s mission to make school lunches unhealthy again.

During the Obama administration, first lady Michelle Obama pushed for healthier school meals as part of her agenda to tackle obesity. In 2010, Congress passed legislation requiring school lunches to be more nutritious, and the Department of Agriculture published new regulations to enforce the law.

The Trump administration rolled back those guidelines in 2018, allowing schools to abandon their commitment to lowering sodium and increasing whole-grain foods. Now the states are suing to set the standards high again.

The main argument from the coalition of states, which includes New York, California, Illinois, Minnesota, New Mexico, Vermont, and the District of Columbia, is that these revised requirements will harm children’s health, especially low-income students of color who rely on school lunches for a nutritious meal.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, passed by Congress in 2010, required schools to only provide grain products that contain at least 50 percent whole grains, and reduce sodium, full-fat milk, and meat from meals. Snacks with low nutritional value were to be swapped out for fruit cups and granola bars.

Although the legislation passed with bipartisan support, Republicans soon turned against the law, citing reports that kids were throwing out their healthier but less tasty lunches. Some schools also complained they were struggling to keep up with the stricter standards.

New policies under Trump’s administration pushed back against the legislation’s stringent requirements, and by 2018, the Department of Agriculture allowed schools to reintroduce refined grains in lunches for half of the weekly meals and loosened the requirements on reducing sodium. They also permitted schools to serve flavored 1 percent milk. Only fat-free milk could be flavored under the Obama rules.

The lawsuit focuses on three key changes from 2018: the reintroduction of refined grains and two of the changes meant to gradually reduce sodium from school meals.

This isn’t the first time states have sued the administration due to disagreement over policies. During the Obama administration, a number of conservative states filed lawsuits to oppose Obamacare and DACA. The Trump administration has already had its fair share of court battles, most recently the president’s national emergency border declaration.

The states are suing because they did not have the opportunity to comment on the requirement changes in 2018. They are also arguing that the new policies are unlawful because they don’t abide by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a national standard for nutritional balance. According to the suit, the department failed to provide a proper explanation for these changes, which were not made based on scientific evidence or nutritional research.

When the changes were implemented, the Agriculture Department defended the decisions by saying the Obama-era policies were an economic burden on schools. In order to meet the requirements, school districts and states paid an additional $1.22 billion in 2015, according to the department.

Agriculture Secretary Scott Perdue added the healthier lunches were “ending up in the trash” because they simply weren’t appetizing to students.

Despite these arguments, however, the complaint makes one statement clear: Children’s nutrition should not be an area of compromise.

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