Congress in 2010 mandated higher nutritional standards for the lunches some 99,000 schools serve to 30 million children in the National School Lunch Program. The program subsidizes the cost of food for students from low-income families and, in return, participating schools must meet certain standards — such as not serving food loaded with saturated fat, packed with refined carbohydrates and lacking in fruits or vegetables. The Agriculture Department is rolling back the requirements, allowing more refined carbohydrates — which promote obesity and diabetes — and more fat in chocolate and other flavored milks.
Supposedly, students are throwing away the healthy foods. “If kids are not eating what is being served, they are not benefiting, and food is being wasted,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said this month. But a 2015 study found that students ate more fruit and did not throw out more of their meals under the new standards. A 2016 study found no association between food type and plate waste. Early research indicates that school lunch changes alter students’ eating habits over time, suggesting that early impressions of nutrition standards might not capture how beneficial they will be in the long term. More research is needed. But the claim that children are just tossing out their federally required apples is not supported.
This is not to say the standards can never change. Some experts say federal sodium limits, which the Agriculture Department is also shifting, might have been too aggressive. Yet, for the most part, the standards should get tougher over time. Instead of allowing higher-fat flavored milks to be served, it would be better not to serve sugar-packed chocolate milk at all.
As with the original requirements now under attack, it might take some time to adjust to healthier standards. But the rules are not in place for the convenience of lunch-line workers or the food industry that benefits from federal school lunch spending. They exist to help children grow in healthy ways. The government should not be shoveling junk onto poor children’s plates, aiding the all-too-common slide into obesity and chronic disease among the most vulnerable Americans.