The Trump administration says it is planning to permanently ease nutrition rules on school lunches, allowing children to eat food with more salt and less whole grain.
The U.S. Agriculture Department said it was taking the step to make meal planning easier for schools and to entice more children to eat healthful food. The number of students eating meals at school peaked in 2010 and has dropped significantly since: In 2010, 5.2 million students ate school lunch, but by 2017, it was 4.8 million.
“If kids are not eating what is being served, they are not benefiting, and food is being wasted,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement this week. “We all have the same goals in mind — the health and development of our young people. USDA trusts our local operators to serve healthy meals that meet local preferences and build bright futures with good nutrition.”
But there was heated criticism from health organizations, including the American Heart Association, which issued a statement urging schools to maintain the standards set by the Obama administration to keep children healthy and saying, “When it comes to our children’s health, there should be no ‘flexibility.’ ”
The Obama administration set rules that sought to make school lunches more healthful with exclusively whole-grain pastas and breads, and with nonfat white milk and less salt. It was reacting to an epidemic of obesity in the United States as well as evidence that excessive salt intake is linked to high blood pressure and other health concerns, and that whole grains are more healthful than refined grains.
In 2017, the Trump administration announced it was temporarily easing those rules, and the Agriculture Department is moving to make those changes permanent. It said it would publish on Wednesday a final rule on school nutrition in the Federal Register — the government’s official journal of agency rules and proposed rules.
The final rule will require that only half of grains in school meals be whole-grain, and it will allow 1 percent flavored milk.
The Trump administration is also changing a three-step sodium reduction plan put in place by the Obama administration. Most schools have already met a first sodium reduction requirement. But it is delaying by several years a second reduction and is eliminating a third reduction target set to go into effect in the 2022-2023 school year. The nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest says that as a result, school lunches will not be required to be in compliance with the legally mandated Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
The School Nutrition Association, which represents school-nutrition professionals who work in schools, praised the administration’s move, with its president, Gay Anderson, saying in a statement:
"School nutrition professionals have made tremendous progress in improving student diets, but the pace and degree of menu changes under updated nutrition standards were more than some students would accept. We appreciate Secretary Perdue for finding solutions to address the concerns of schools and students. This rule will entice more students to eat healthy school meals, which meet calorie limits and offer fruits, vegetables and milk
But health and nutrition experts criticized it. The American Heart Association said in its statement of opposition:
We hope all schools reject this regulation and continue their commitment to serve healthier foods on our kids’ plates. Many schools declared they would do just that when these changes were first announced late last year. With nearly 100 percent of the nation’s schools already complying with the school meal standards that were released in 2012, children across the country are clearly benefiting.
USDA’s decision to weaken the standards – despite overwhelming opposition – threatens to reverse our progress toward ensuring our nation’s children receive healthy meals at school that help them attain better long-term health and academic success. If the concern truly was to provide those few schools experiencing challenges with more ‘flexibility’, the more responsible approach would have been for USDA to provide more technical assistance to these institutions so they could offer healthier food choices.
When it comes to our children’s health, there should be no ‘flexibility.’ Failing to meet the science-based sodium standards for school meals originally adopted by USDA will put kids’ health in jeopardy.
We strongly believe that all schools can meet the original nutrition standards. It is in the best interests of our children for schools to keep moving in that direction, despite this latest USDA rule.”
Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (Va.), who is the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee and is slated to become its chairman in January, said in a statement slamming the changes:
“The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s final rule on school nutrition standards runs counter to accepted science about quality school nutrition. By rolling back previous standards that were designed to limit students’ sodium intake and promote the consumption of healthier whole grains, USDA is threatening the progress we’ve made toward improving nutrition in schools.
“Fortunately, school districts are not required to join the USDA in walking away from evidence-based nutrition standards. It is my hope that school districts across the country – many of which have already successfully met the previous standards – will maintain their commitment to serving students nutritious meals that support their long-term health and development.”
According to the Agriculture Department, the rule will make permanent three “menu planning flexibilities” that had been established temporarily in 2017:
Here’s the proposed rule: