After only six days on the job, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue moved to stall one of former first lady Michelle Obama’s signature accomplishments: stricter nutritional standards for school breakfasts and lunches, which feed more than 31 million children.
The measure is similar to a policy rider that House Republicans inserted in this week’s appropriations bill. It also echoes a bipartisan compromise made by Senate Republicans and Democrats last year, which did not pass before the end of the session.
“We know meals cannot be nutritious if they're not consumed, if they're thrown out,” Perdue told reporters after eating chicken nuggets and salad with a group of fifth graders. “We have to balance sodium and whole grain content with palatability."
It was the second blow to the Obama administration’s nutritional legacy in less than a week. On Friday, the Food and Drug Administration signaled its intent to rewrite long-delayed menu-labeling rules passed as part of the Affordable Care Act. Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee also attached several nutrition-related riders to this week’s appropriations bill, including one that targeted voluntary industry sodium reductions.
The changes will likely be cheered by conservatives, who have long cited the previous restrictions as examples of gross federal overreach. They were also welcomed by the School Nutrition Association, a powerful lobbying group which represents school food workers and administrators, and which has said schools need more time and flexibility to meet the stricter rules.
But such rollbacks have been rejected by public health and nutrition advocates, who say the stricter nutrition rules are critical tools in the fight against obesity.
“I feel that we have made such progress in schools meals over the past five years,” said Miriam Nelson, a public health researcher who helped advise Michelle Obama’s nutrition initiatives. “This progress has contributed to reversing the trend in childhood obesity rates nationwide. … We want to continue the progress we have made.”
School lunches have seen a radical makeover in the past five years. Since 2012, when the nutrition rules mandated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act went into effect, cafeterias have had to slash the amount of calories, trans-fats, sodium and refined grains in their foods, replacing cafeteria staples such as conventional pizza with salt-reduced, whole-grain versions. They are also required to serve fruit, a variety of vegetables and low-fat or fat-free milk. Schools may serve chocolate milk, but it must be skim milk.
Under current rules, all the grains offered in school cafeterias must be 50 percent or more whole grain. Schools also have adopted new sodium limits, which range by grade and were scheduled to continue dropping through 2020. Currently, elementary school lunches may include up to 1,230 milligrams of sodium. That was set to fall to 640 milligrams.
Perdue’s announcement changes that: Schools will not be required to make any changes to the amount of sodium in the meals they serve until after 2020. The Department of Agriculture will also continue granting waivers to schools allowing them to opt out of a requirement to serve only whole-grain enriched foods. They will soon be permitted to serve chocolate and flavored milk, provided it's reduced fat.
“We’re not unwinding or winding back any nutrition standards at all,” Perdue said. “We're giving school food professionals the flexibility they need.”
Under the Obama administration, the nutrition guidelines for schools that participated in the National School Lunch Program shifted, requiring cafeterias to increase their offering of fruits and vegetables, serve only skim or low-fat milk and cut trans-fat from the menu altogether. They also required school cafeterias to cut sodium in the food they were serving.
The changes, championed by the first lady, were unveiled at Parklawn Elementary, a school 30 miles southeast of Catoctin Elementary. Obama said they were an effort to combat the growing problem of childhood obesity -- with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimating that 1 in 6 children were obese in 2015.
“When we send our kids to school, we expect that they won’t be eating the kind of fatty, salty, sugary foods that we try to keep them from eating at home,” Obama said.
But many cafeteria managers complained that the new requirements made lunches less appetizing to children and said they saw food waste grow and their lunch revenues shrink, posing serious problems for cafeterias that often operate on shoestring budgets. School administrators also opposed the measures, saying they were concerned about the impact on school budgets.
A small number of schools opted out of the federal program, forfeiting federal funds so they could set their own menus. Many Republicans opposed the guidelines and pressed the USDA to temporarily waive requirements for some school districts.
According to the Department of Agriculture, 97 percent of schools are already compliant with the stricter standards -- which qualifies them for an extra six cents per meal in government reimbursements. A 2016 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the nutritional quality of school meals has increased 30 percent on average.
But despite those successes, the rules have become controversial in some sectors. A critical sticking point has been the stepped, 10-year rollout of sodium reductions, as well as the requirement that all prepared foods contain 51 percent or more whole grains.
Some school nutrition directors have said those particular changes are expensive and difficult to implement: In some cases, cafeterias have been unable to source compliant versions of student favorites, such as pasta and bagels. In other cases, schools have rolled out healthier lunches and seen their profits drop as costs increase and students opt to bring lunch from home. Those effects have been particularly dramatic in wealthier districts, such as Loudoun County Public Schools, to which Catoctin Elementary belongs.
As a result, the SNA has repeatedly asked USDA to revert to a less strict requirement for whole grains and to scrap the pending sodium reductions altogether. Both issues were cornerstones of the association’s 2017 policy report, which more than 500 school lunch workers brought to congressional offices during Capitol Hill visits in early April.
“We hear stories from our members about students who bring contraband salt shakers ... into the school to add flavor to the meals,” said Montague, chief executive of the SNA. “[Schools] need more time. That's what we're asking for.”
And yet, despite Perdue’s reassurance that no rules were being rolled back, many have greeted the announcement with disappointment. About 30 parents protested outside the school Monday, holding signs with slogans like “real food for kids” and chanting “healthy kids, healthy food.” Perdue chuckled and waved to the protesters from a distance as he got into his SUV, prompting one woman, who declined to give her name, to yell “give a damn!” after him.
Public health groups who worked on the current nutrition standards, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the American Heart Association, also expressed dismay.
“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,” Margo Wooten, the director of nutrition policy at CSPI, said in a statement.“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—allowing dangerously high levels of salt in school lunch.”
Reformers argue that children are taking in too much sodium in schools, and that the changes are needed to protect their health. The average child aged 6 to 18 years old eats between 2,000 and 3,565 milligrams of sodium each day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s nearly 33 percent more than the amount the CDC recommends for adults -- enough to contribute to hypertension.
Under current lunch guidelines, high school students can eat as much as 1,420 milligrams of sodium in one meal -- roughly 62 percent the CDC’s daily limit.
Children who eat whole grains are less likely to be overweight and tend to have better nutrient and fiber uptake than their classmates who eat refined grains. Despite that, one recent study found that fewer than one in 10 children eats the recommended amount of whole grains.
Update: This story originally said the sodium limits for school lunch were 1,230 grams of sodium. It is 1,230 milligrams. The Post regrets the error.