Student Well-Being

Obama-Era Nutrition Standards Loosened for School Meals

By Evie Blad — May 09, 2017 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue rolled out an interim rule designed to “provide flexibility” to schools in meeting nutrition standards set by the Obama administration.

The changes—which take effect next school year—affect rules related to whole grains, sodium, and milk served with school meals. They fall short of the aggressive scale-back that some conservative members of Congress have pushed for in recent years.

The original nutrition rules, championed by former first lady Michelle Obama, require schools to cut back on salt and fat and to serve more whole grains, fresh fruits, and vegetables.

The standards, created under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, were praised by groups concerned about childhood obesity, but K-12 and industry groups said they’ve been costly and difficult for many schools.

Under the rules announced last week, states can grant exemptions during the 2017-18 school year from requirements that all grain products in school meals are whole-grain richif schools are “experiencing hardship” in meeting them. That extends previous flexibility the agency granted after schools complained it was difficult to find whole-grain foods like pastas to meet the rule. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said it “will take all necessary regulatory actions to implement a long-term solution” related to whole grains.

Through 2020, schools will be considered in compliance with sodium rules for school foods if they meet current restrictions. The original nutrition standards included a schedule of restrictions that limited salt more and more over time. Schools were scheduled to implement tougher sodium requirements in the 2017-18 school year. Some schools said the limits made meals less desirable for students.

The USDA will also create a rule that will allow schools to serve 1 percent flavored milk, Perdue said. Under the previous rules, schools could only serve non-fat flavored milk.

When the rules were originally created, the intent was that they should be regularly reviewed, Perdue said as he announced the changes at a school in Leesburg, Va. The interim changes came with a promise that the USDA would look for longer-term ways to alter the school nutrition regulations. The USDA estimates that the more-stringent requirements cost districts and states an additional $1.22 billion in the 2015 fiscal year.

“This announcement is the result of years of feedback from students, schools, and food service experts about the challenges they are facing in meeting the final regulations for school meals,” Perdue said. “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.”

Health Advocates Disappointed

He announced the changes alongside Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, who chairs the Senate agriculture committee, and leaders of the School Nutrition Association, an industry group that has pushed for changes to school meal rules.

Patricia Montague, the association’s CEO, said in a statement that her group welcomed the new flexibility. “School nutrition professioals are committed to the students they serve and will continue working with USDA and the secretary to strengthen and protect school meal programs,” she said.

Among the regulations Perdue’s rule won’t affect are competitive foods standards, which govern what schools can offer in vending machines, on cafeteria a la carte lines, and through fundraisers. Some conservative lawmakers, including Roberts, say those rules unfairly hurt extracurricular budgets and drive students away from eating school meals.

Groups who support the nutrition standards are disappointed with the changes, including National PTA and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“For some children, the only food they eat each day comes from the federal school meals program,” American Academy of Pediatrics President Fernando Stein said in a statement. “They rely on these meals to give them the right balance of fruits, vegetables and whole grains so they can concentrate and succeed in school. Healthy eating habits start early and schools have an important role to play.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2017 edition of Education Week as Obama-Era Nutrition Standards Loosened for School Meals


Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Why Retaining Education Leaders of Color Is Key for Student Success
Today, in the United States roughly 53 percent of our public school students are young people of color, while approximately 80 percent of the educators who lead their classrooms, schools, and districts are white. Racial
Jobs January 2022 Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Proven Strategies to Improve Reading Scores
In this webinar, education and reading expert Stacy Hurst will provide a look at some of the biggest issues facing curriculum coordinators, administrators, and teachers working in reading education today. You will: Learn how schools
Content provided by Reading Horizons

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being COVID Vaccine Uptake Has Stalled for Young Children. What Schools Can Do to Help
Overall, only about 1 in 5 children ages 5-11 in the United States are fully inoculated against COVID-19.
4 min read
An information sign is displayed as a child arrives with her parent to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for children 5 to 11-years-old at London Middle School in Wheeling, Ill., on Nov. 17, 2021.
A child arrives with her parent to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at London Middle School in Wheeling, Ill., in November.
Nam Y. Huh/AP
Student Well-Being Opinion In Uncertain Times, Students Need to Be Able to Adapt
They might need to hang in there when the going gets tough, but it’s also important to adjust when circumstances change.
Andrew Martin
2 min read
Images shows a stylized artistic landscape with soothing colors.
Student Well-Being Q&A Communications Expert Explains: How to Talk to Parents About COVID Vaccination
A Johns Hopkins University expert discusses a new training project on how to communicate about the sensitive issue.
7 min read
Anti-vaccine mandate protesters rally outside the garage doors of the Los Angeles Unified School District, LAUSD headquarters in Los Angeles on Sept. 9, 2021. The Los Angeles board of education voted to require students 12 and older to be vaccinated against the coronavirus to attend in-person classes in the nation's second-largest school district.
Anti-vaccine mandate protesters rally outside the Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters in September, 2021.
Damian Dovarganes/AP
Student Well-Being What the Research Says New Research Shows How Bad the Pandemic Has Been for Student Mental Health
Researchers say the road to recovery will be a long one.
4 min read
2016 Opinion ELL 840293800