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The Trump administration’s tone-deaf school lunch move

The USDA is loosening school nutrition standards as childhood obesity soars.

Under Trump, schools won’t have to lower their sodium targets for now — which means kids can still be served lunches that meet their maximum daily recommended intake of salt.
Christian Science Monitor/Getty

The Trump administration wants to keep the salt, fat, and sugar in kids’ lunches.

The new rules, first announced in May 2017 by Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue as part of a plan to “Make School Meals Great Again,” will officially relax Obama-era nutrition standards for federally subsidized school lunch programs.

That means 99,000 schools, feeding 30 million kids, can offer 1 percent chocolate and strawberry milk again, more refined white flour products, and, most importantly, freeze sodium levels in school lunches instead of reducing them further.

“These common-sense flexibilities provide excellent customer service to our local school nutrition professionals, while giving children the world-class food service they deserve,” Perdue said in a statement. In May 2017, when the agency released temporary legislation ahead of the new final rule, the USDA said schools had been asking for more control over the whole grains, sodium, and milk they serve kids.

But it’s hard not to view the announcement as an attack on significant nutritional improvements to the school lunch program during the Obama administration, and Michelle Obama’s legacy of fighting the obesity.

Thanks to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the 30 million kids dependent on the free and low-cost meals provided by the program now get more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains instead of the bland fish stick tacos and mystery meat they had come to expect. Of all the issues to prioritize, Perdue has been targeting school lunches since his first days in office.

Perdue’s changes are mostly cosmetic — but they signal there’s more to come

To understand what’s changing, we should first explain what the previous administration achieved. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act centered on cleaning up school food, which was, quite frankly, a carnival of abominably unhealthy options. Since school lunches are an important touchstone of nutrition for many American children, getting the act passed became a key focus of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign to fight childhood obesity.

The law required the federal government to use recommendations from the Institute of Medicine to make the National School Lunch Program more nutritious, with more whole grains, a wider variety of fruits and vegetables, and less sodium, full-fat milk, and meat.

The law also mandated that schools stop marketing fat-, sugar-, and salt-laden snacks — like sugary beverages and chocolate bars — in cafeterias and vending machines and replace those offerings with lower-calorie and more nutritious alternatives like fruit cups and granola bars. The USDA also gave schools 10 years to gradually reduce sodium in the lunches they served. The first benchmark of reduction went into effect in 2014, and the second phase was supposed to go into effect this coming school year.

Perdue’s USDA will allow schools to delay that second benchmark of further reducing the sodium levels in school lunches until 2024-2025, seven years later than the initial requirement. It also wants schools to be able to serve flavored 1 percent milk again, and only ensure that half of the weekly grains in school lunches and breakfast are whole grains.

Some of these changes are more superficial than significant. Schools already served flavored nonfat milk, so the addition of 1 percent flavored milk is not a major change. And schools could already apply for waivers to get around moving to whole-grain versions of certain products, so Perdue’s USDA is simply relaxing that process further.

The freeze on sodium reductions is the most noteworthy shift, since it means schools can still serve kids lunches that meet their maximum daily recommended sodium intake for another six years.

“Virtually all school districts have met the first sodium reduction targets. Instead of building on that progress, the Administration has chosen to jeopardize children’s health in the name of deregulation,” said Margo Wootan, a longtime nutrition advocate and director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in a statement.

Most significantly, these changes feel an awful lot like a sign of more to come, Wootan told Vox last May. Legally, it actually wouldn’t be very difficult for the Trump administration to further roll back the school nutrition standards and dismantle pieces of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. “To change the nutrition standards, the agency would have to go through rulemaking,” she said. “They don’t need Congress to do it.” And with their new rules, that’s what they’re doing.

Politically, though, rolling back school lunch standards may be a little trickier, Wootan added, as the majority of parents support the legislation. And while students and schools did complain about the standards in the early days, and even experienced some revenue losses, they’ve largely adapted to them with no long-term financial impact. To date, nearly all US schools are in compliance. That may be why the administration, at least for now, is treading softly.

To justify the move Perdue has used an argument that Republicans fall back on time and time again: “If kids aren't eating the food, and it’s ending up in the trash, they aren't getting any nutrition — thus undermining the intent of the program,” he said in May 2017. Wasted food is indeed a problem in schools — but it has little to do with the nutrition standards: Levels of food waste didn’t change after the standards were implemented, and researchers have found that kids in the program are actually eating more fruits and vegetables today.

Our research shows participation in the school lunch program has actually increased among lower-income children and remained high among children buying full-priced meals, which suggests children have adapted as well,” Juliana Cohen, a nutrition professor at Harvard and Merrimack College who has studied school food waste, told Vox in 2017.

“The real [challenge for reducing food waste] is to focus on palatability,” she added. “If we don’t focus on the taste of the foods and really improving the taste of the foods, this likely won’t address food waste in schools.” Perdue’s relaxing of standards related to milk, whole grains, and salt won’t do that.

The move also seems pretty tone-deaf. “The public has never been more interested in nutrition,” Wootan said, “which shows how out of touch this administration is with where the American people are and how they regularly put special interests before the interests of the overwhelming majority of Americans.”

We’ll have to wait and see what other changes come down from the USDA, but the announcement does not bode well for the food movement or for America’s children, whose rates of obesity are projected to soar.