The U.S. Department of Agriculture has taken another whack at former first lady Michelle Obama’s signature achievement: Establishing stricter nutritional standards for school breakfasts and lunches. And on her birthday.
On Friday, USDA Deputy Under Secretary Brandon Lipps proposed new rules for the Food and Nutrition Service that would allow schools to cut the amount of vegetables and fruits required at lunch and breakfasts while giving them license to sell more pizza, burgers and fries to students. The agency is responsible for administering nutritional programs that feed nearly 30 million students at 99,000 schools.
Lipps said the changes will help address what he described as unintended consequences of the regulations put in place during the Obama administration. For example, when schools were trying to implement innovative solutions such as grab-and-go breakfast off a cart or meals in the classroom, they were forced to give kids two bananas to meet minimum federal requirements.
But Colin Schwartz, deputy director of legislative affairs for Center for Science in the Public Interest, says that the proposed rules, if finalized, “would create a huge loophole in school nutrition guidelines, paving the way for children to choose pizza, burgers, french fries and other foods high in calories, saturated fat or sodium in place of balanced school meals every day.”
He says that limiting the variety of vegetables could make french fries even more central to students’ diets. He says the potato lobby has been pushing for this change, and that the potato industry was behind a change that happened quietly last March making it easier to substitute potatoes for some fruit in weekly breakfast menus.
Kam Quarles, the chief executive of the National Potato Council, said, “Potatoes are a nutrient dense vegetable, which contain more potassium than a banana and 30 percent of the daily value of vitamin C along with 3 grams of protein, fiber and carbohydrates that school children need to perform their best at school.”
Under the Obama administration, the nutrition guidelines for schools that participated in the National School Lunch Program shifted, requiring cafeterias to increase their offerings of fruits and vegetables, serve only skim or low-fat milk and cut trans-fat from the menu altogether. They also required dramatic cuts in sodium in school cafeteria food.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kid Act of 2010 standards were a key initiative in Michelle Obama’s fight against childhood obesity. The act, built around recommendations from a panel of experts convened by the Institute of Medicine and updated with key changes from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, aimed to foster the kind of healthy changes at school that many parents were also trying to encourage at home. These included: making sure kids were offered fruits and vegetables each day, increasing whole grains, and tailoring portion sizes and calorie counts to maintain a healthy weight.
The Trump administration has been chipping away at those Obama-era rules. First, just days after Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue assumed his role, he announced the USDA would be slowing the implementation of the aggressive sodium standards as well as Obama-era rules for whole grains and sweetened milks, citing food waste and nonparticipation as key rationales for the shift.
The USDA also provided the option to offer flavored, low-fat milk to children participating in school meal programs, and to participants ages six and older in the Special Milk Program for Children and the Child and Adult Care Food Program; it reduced the whole grain requirements to half of the weekly grains served; and it provided more time for schools to comply with reduced sodium levels in meals.
Then last year, the USDA moved to allow schools to substitute potatoes and other starchy vegetables for fruit with breakfast.
In essence, these proposals allowed foods served in schools to be saltier, fattier or more processed in the name of palatability.
Now, in a third round of revisions, Friday’s proposals would allow schools to cut the amount of fruit included in breakfasts served outside of the cafeteria from one cup to a half cup. The remaining calories could be filled with sweet pastries and granola bars. For lunches, the proposals would allow schools to offer potatoes as a vegetable every day and gives them the flexibility to provide things like pizza and burgers as a la carte items that students may choose over more nutritious full meals.
The proposals will be entered in the Federal Register on Jan. 23, and will be open for public comment for 60 days.
Nancy Roman, president of Partnership for a Healthier America, said that these proposed rule changes, “sound like a step in the wrong direction. If anything, the science of the past few years suggests that we need even more fruits and vegetables at each meal, and the less processed the better. It’s not just what is on the plate, but how it is prepared. And particularly young children need more exposure to unprocessed, easy-to-eat, fruits, vegetables and greens.”
Kids can get more than half of their daily calories from school meals. About two-thirds of the 30 million children who eat school meals every day qualify as low-income and are getting meals free or for a reduced price. Low-income kids are disproportionately affected by obesity and are less likely to be fed healthy meals at home, so the nutritional makeup of school meals is impactful.
Many of these changes flout the good news about the nation’s school nutrition programs reported by last year’s USDA “School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study,” which was the first comprehensive assessment of school meals after the implementation of Michelle Obama’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.
The study showed that, after the implementation of the Obama-era healthy food changes, the Healthy Eating Index (HEI-2010), a multicomponent measure of diet quality, shot up dramatically for both school-provided breakfasts and lunches: Scores went from 49.6 out of 100 in school year 2009-2019 to 71.3 by 2014-2015.
And while Perdue has argued that healthier food offerings mean more food waste and lower participation in the programs, the USDA study revealed that there was greater participation in school meal programs at schools with the highest healthy food standards and that food waste remained relatively unchanged.
The School Nutrition Association, the trade group for school food-service manufacturers and school food professionals, has frequently advocated for less stringent nutritional requirements. The SNA recently released a 2020 Position Paper, which calls on Congress to preserve the current flexibility on whole grains, sodium and milk.
SNA president Gay Anderson said the organization would study the proposals further. She called the Obama era standards for school meals “a tremendous success overall,” but noted that a few of the requirements contributed to reduced lunch participation, high costs and food waste.
Mary Story, a professor of Global Health, and Family Medicine and Community Health at Duke University and a member of the USDA Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, said that, with these changes, the administration “is going against their own findings from their study which showed that the updates in nutrition standards have had a positive and significant effect. This makes absolutely no sense. Politics and industry pressure should not interfere with what is best for children’s health.”
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The Washington Post’s Moriah Balingit contributed to this story.