Student Well-Being

Trump Administration Loosens School Lunch Nutrition Standards

By Evie Blad — May 01, 2017 3 min read
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U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced Monday an interim rule designed to “provide flexibility” to schools in meeting school meal nutrition standards adopted by the Obama administration.

The 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 authority of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, were praised by organizations concerned about childhood obesity, but education and industry groups said compliance has been costly and difficult for many schools.

The changes fall short of the aggressive scale-back that some conservative members of Congress have pushed for in recent years. Under the rules announced Monday:

  • States can grant exemptions during the 2017-18 school year from requirements that all grain products served in school meals are whole-grain rich if 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 federal agency 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 “target one” requirements. The original nutrition standards included a schedule of sodium restrictions that limited salt more and more over time. Schools are currently scheduled to meet “target two” requirements. Some schools said the limits made meals less desirable for students.
  • Schools will be able to serve 1 percent flavored milk.

When the rules were originally created, the intent was that they should be regularly reviewed to see how they are implemented, Perdue said as he announced the changes at Catoctin Elementary 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 requirements cost school districts and states an additional $1.22 billion in the 2015 fiscal year, he said.

“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.”

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.

“School Nutrition Association is appreciative of Secretary Perdue’s support of school meal programs in providing flexibility to prepare and serve healthy meals that are appealing to students,” SNA CEO Patricia Montague said in a statement. “School nutrition professionals are committed to the students they serve and will continue working with USDA and the Secretary to strengthen and protect school meal programs.”

Groups who support the nutrition standards said they were disappointed in the changes.

“It’s discouraging that just days into his tenure, one of the first things that Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue will do is to roll back progress on the quality of the meals served to America’s children,” said Margo G. Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Ninety percent of American kids eat too much sodium every day. Schools have been moving in the right direction, so it makes no sense to freeze that progress in its tracks—and allow dangerously high levels of salt in school lunch.”

You can watch all of Perdue’s remarks in the video below.

Further reading about school lunches and student nutrition:

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