The Trump administration violated federal rules when it rolled back heavily debated nutrition standards for school meals programs in 2018, a federal court ruled Monday.
The U.S. District Court in Maryland vacated the rule changes and sided with plaintiffs, children’s health advocacy groups that had argued the U.S. Department of Agriculture violated the Administrative Procedures Act, which agencies must follow in changing federal regulations.
That’s because the final rule the USDA issued—which allowed higher sodium levels in school meals and eliminated a requirement for more whole-grain items—differed too significantly from the version it put out for public comment. That earlier draft would have delayed those regulations and allowed some exemptions, rather than eliminating the standards altogether.
“Although an agency is certainly permitted to change a rule in response to comments, USDA’s changes are not ‘in character with the original scheme’ of the [rule put out for public comment] because there is a fundamental difference between delaying compliance standards—which indicates that school meals will still eventually meet those standards—and eliminating those standards altogether,” District Judge George Hazel’s opinion said.
Attorneys for the USDA argued the agency made changes to the final rule in response to public comments, an argument the court rejected.
The case was brought by Center for Science in the Public Interest and Healthy School Food Maryland.
“The Trump administration’s attempt to gut the whole-grain and sodium standards would have undone years of hard work and advocacy on the part of organizations like ours,” Fania Yangarber, executive director of Healthy School Food Maryland, said in a statement after the ruling. “Now, more than ever, our kids deserve high nutrition standards in their school meals. In the midst of a pandemic and economic crisis, this is a win for children and families across America—particularly those that rely on free and reduced-cost meals.”
The court rejected some of the groups’ other arguments, including an assertion that the USDA rule change differed too greatly from the underlying federal law, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which had been championed by former first lady Michelle Obama. The law is ambiguous, Hazel wrote, and federal courts defer to agencies’ interpretations on such issues.
The nutrition regulations have been the subject of debate in Congress for years. Health advocacy groups argue they are necessary to combat concerns like childhood obesity. But industry groups and school nutrition directors have argued that it’s difficult to comply with the mandates.
Photo: Students pick up their lunch at Barre Town Elementary School in Barre Town, Vt. --Toby Talbot/AP-File