Student Well-Being

Are the Trump Administration’s Latest Rules for School Meals All Bad? 3 Things Schools Need to Know

By Arianna Prothero — January 24, 2020 7 min read
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School lunches have always been political. After all, big agriculture has a significant financial stake in what can be served to America’s 50 million school children.

But as with nearly everything in the Trump era, what kids eat at school has become even more political—and divisive. Since President Trump was elected, his administration’s slow rollback of portions of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 has been seen by some as a direct affront to the Obama administration.

When U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced a new batch of proposed rule changes last week—which would loosen some restrictions on the amount and kinds of foods that can be served—the blowback was swift and harsh.

Some critics called USDA’s proposal a favor to the U.S. potato industry at the expense of students’ health. Many media outlets made the timing of the announcement the headline—it came on the birthday of former first lady Michelle Obama, who championed child nutrition and the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. But Perdue said the previous rules were too strict and limited school districts’ flexibility in what foods they can serve to cut down on waste.

As the dust has settled in the days since, and people have had time to delve into the 167 pages of the proposal, there are some big changes schools and districts need to know about—and some they will most likely be celebrating.

“What has made the headlines is really some of the negative effects of these new regulations,” said Bertrand Weber, the director of culinary and wellness services for the Minneapolis Public Schools. (Education Week profiled Weber and his groundbreaking work on school nutrition in 2013 when he was selected as one of our Leaders To Learn From.)

To Weber, the talk of “flexibility,” means watering down nutrition standards that he doesn’t support. But, he said, “there are some aspects of it that no one is talking about that really does address some issues that food services are struggling with, that simplifies some of the process we deal with.”

Education Week spoke with two district food service directors and one nutrition expert to pick out the three most important changes to the school meal rules proposed by the USDA and why.

The first, doesn’t actually have to do with food at all, it has to do with paperwork.

Audits of food services won’t be as frequent. They’ll switch from every 3 years to 5 years.

That’s if schools have a proven track record of being in compliance. Schools—or more specifically, school food authorities—that are deemed at-risk can be subject to additional audits from their state.

This change is going to free up a lot of time for food service staff to focus on their core mission, which is providing nutritious food for students, said Jessica Shelly, the director of student dining services for Cincinnati Public Schools.

“It was 45 to 50 man-hours that we had to spend preparing all the documentation just for the procurement audit,” said Shelly. Then, “there’s the audit for the community eligibility provision, there’s the fiscal responsibility audit, there’s the audit for compliance in terms of on-site review, there are so many different audits we go through.”

The change will also free up state-level staff, said Shelly, to focus more energy on helping districts and schools that are struggling to meet the federal guidelines.

Schools will have more flexibility in the foods they can serve, particularly among vegetable subgroups.

The reaction to the rule changes that would give schools more leeway over food they serve is mixed.

Both Weber and Shelly agree that allowing schools to serve protein items at breakfast without first serving students a whole grain, as is currently required, will help cut back on the amount of sugar students consume. Oftentimes, grain offerings have a lot of sugar in them—like a muffin—while proteins such as eggs or turkey sausages don’t, they said.

But where things get really complicated and divisive is when it comes to the rule changes regarding vegetable subgroups.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act requires schools to offer students, on a weekly basis, certain amounts of vegetables from five subgroups: dark green, red/orange, legumes, starchy, and other.

In a nutshell, the newly proposed rule changes would cut back on the required number of vegetables that have to be served under the red/orange category and increase the minimum number of vegetables that schools can decide to offer under the “other” category.

On the one hand, it creates what many have described as a loophole for schools to serve more potatoes. And this is a big concern for a lot of health advocates and nutrition experts.

“The flexibilities make it easier for vegetables that kids already know and accept to be served more frequently, like potatoes and corn,” said Melissa Pflugh Prescott, an assistant professor of school and childhood foods and nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Those are healthy, and I have no problem with children eating them, but that ideally should be just one kind, but unfortunately kids aren’t getting a lot of legumes or green leafy vegetables. That’s why the vegetable subgroup part is so important.”

On the other hand, what counted in the individual subgroups under the previous rules could be pretty limiting, said Shelly, who likes to get in-season vegetables from local farmers.

“A lot of what they produce fit into the ‘other category’ and sometimes I feel like I’m just offering kids stuff that ticks a box, instead of offering them these local produce,” she said. “Zucchini, wax beans, green beans, beets, yellow squash, all these things that are really fun! Mushrooms! You laugh, but we make a really delicious summer squash and roasted mushroom blend, but it goes into this other category and doesn’t count [toward many of the subgroups].”

Additionally, the proposed change to the subgroup rule will also allow schools to count peas and beans that were originally offered as meat alternatives—such as pasta made out of chickpeas—to count as a vegetable.

While Weber thinks it’s good to offer food like that as an alternative to meat so students have vegetarian meal options, they shouldn’t count as vegetables, he said. Students need to build good habits around eating unadulterated vegetables.

The new regulations probably won’t cut down much on food waste.

In a statement announcing the rule changes, Sec. Perdue said that concerns over food waste had inspired many of the proposed alterations.

“Schools and school districts continue to tell us that there is still too much food waste and that more common-sense flexibility is needed to provide students nutritious and appetizing meals,” he said.

But the new flexibilities may not cut back on food waste much, if at all, largely because research has shown that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act didn’t generate a bunch of additional waste, said Prescott.

“I’m concerned that they seem to be motivated by a desire to decrease food waste when there is no evidence that it has increased,” she said. “Food waste has been an issue for decades ... people are acting like this is a new problem. Food waste is a consequence of any food service operation.”

Weber thinks the focus on food waste is misguided.

“And we keep using that as an excuse to give kids whatever, despite the fact that we are in the field of education and should be teaching kids what is healthy,” he said. “It’s like [giving] kids the option to choose their own curriculum.”

There are many other evidence-based ways to cut back on food waste that have proven to be much more effective, according to Weber and Prescott.

First and foremost is giving students more time to eat their lunch. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends at least 20 minutes of seat time for students, but many schools don’t offer even that.

Scheduling recess before lunch also helps cut down on food waste, as do other strategies such as offering share tables, where students can leave uneaten items, such as an apple for other students who may want it, and salad bars, where students can pick their vegetables and portion size.

“I’m in the business of feeding kids, not garbage cans,” said Shelly. “We started putting salad bars in our schools ten years ago. Our vegetable consumption went up and our food waste went down.”

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Photo: At Fisher Middle School in Greenville, S.C., students receive school lunches that emphasize fresh fruits and vegetables and healthier options. —Jaclyn Borowski/Education Week

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.