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Just a week into his position, US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced Monday a rollback of nutrition standards for school meals, previously championed by former First Lady Michelle Obama as part of a larger initiative to improve the health of America’s children.
Under Perdue’s new rollback, schools across the country can now delay a requirement to reduce sodium levels, can serve kids fewer whole grains, and can provide one percent flavored milk in addition to flavored skim, unflavored skim, and unflavored one percent.
In a news release that declared the move would “make school meals great again,” Perdue 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. 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.”
Specifically, under Obama-era nutrition rules, schools were supposed to decrease sodium from meals in three phases. For instance, 2012 school lunches had average sodium levels between roughly 1,400mg to 1,600mg, with elementary school lunches on the lower end. Federal dietary guidelines, which schools must follow, recommend kids get 1,900mg to 2,300mg or less of sodium per day (depending on age). Currently, schools have dropped down to “Target 1,” which is a range of about 1,200mg to 1,400mg or less. Schools were supposed to get that down to about 900mg to 1,000mg this year (“Target 2”) and then to between 600mg and 700mg by 2022 (“Final Target”). The USDA will now waive the requirement to reach Target 2 until 2020.
The USDA will also grant exemptions from the current requirement for schools to serve only whole-grain-rich foods.
The move was applauded by the School Nutrition Association (SNA), a group led by school cafeteria and nutrition employees and heavily funded by the food industry. SNA CEO Patricia Montague was on hand at the Virginia school where Perdue made the rollback announcement. “We have been wanting flexibility so that schools can serve meals that are both nutritious and palatable,” Montague said during Monday’s announcement, according to the Los Angeles Times. “We don’t want kids wasting their meals by throwing them away.”
“We would not lower standards for reading, writing, and arithmetic just because students found them challenging subjects.”
In recent years, the SNA has gone public with internal spats over the school nutrition standards. Some of its members called for schools to largely abandon the standards, including the requirement to serve fruits and vegetables with every meal. Other members strongly objected.
Marion Nestle, a nutrition and public health expert at New York University, said the organization’s position papers show that SNA “now fully represents the interests of its corporate food industry donors.”
The rollback drew quick criticism from some Democrats. Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) released a statement condemning the move. “Just days into his new job as Secretary of USDA, Secretary Perdue has decided to put special interests ahead of the health of America’s children,” DeLauro said.
McGovern added: “Just because President Trump thinks fast food is a balanced meal doesn’t mean we should lower our standards for our kids.”
Nutrition advocates were also quick to criticize the move. Howell Wechsler, CEO of Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a group that advocates for children’s nutrition and is funded by the Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association, said the move ignores progress in improving school nutrition. “Providing students with appealing, nutritious school meals is not easy—it takes a lot of work,” he conceded. “But shouldn’t our schools be setting an example for our students about the importance of working hard to meet critical goals? We would not lower standards for reading, writing, and arithmetic just because students found them challenging subjects, and we should not do it for school nutrition either.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that childhood obesity has tripled in the US since the 1970s. Today, about one-in-five school aged children is obese. The disease raises the risks of chronic health conditions, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, asthma, several types of cancers, and mental health issues related to being bullied and having low self-esteem.