On Monday, May 1, newly-appointed U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced that the U.S Department of Agriculture will alter the Obama-era nutrition requirements for school lunches with the official USDA press release reading: “Ag Secretary Perdue Moves to Make School Meals Great Again.”
The first question that comes to mind is, “Were school meals ever great?” But once the bewilderment subsides, the sickening reality sets in — the government just made unhealthy foods more accessible to children. The press release stated that greater flexibility in nutrition requirements for school meal programs will enable them to make food choices both healthful and appealing to students. The proclamation signed by Perdue begins the process of restoring local control of guidelines on whole grains, sodium, and milk.
These reversions are in response to the 2010 Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFKA) — legislation designed to improve the nutritional quality and hunger safety net for millions of children. The act was seen as a continuation of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative to end childhood obesity within the generation. With the United States having the fifth highest overweight/obesity rate in the world, a drastic policy redesign was necessary. The Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act required schools to serve breakfasts and lunches that met certain nutritional criteria. If schools failed to comply, they were at risk of not receiving federal reimbursements (which is typically how schools are able to afford a lunch/breakfast program). The requirements included, but were not limited to, offering a daily fruit and vegetable, providing whole grains, and serving fat-free, unflavored milk.
Since they were first implemented in 2012, the regulations were scrutinized by the School Nutrition Association, a non-profit organization representing employees of the school-food system, and also the major food-industry conglomerates who supply school districts with many of the ingredients, premade meals, and vending machine snacks. The two parties saw the regulations as an infringement on the rights of the schools and an overreach of government authority. With the Trump era underway, these regulations are now being reversed — or as the USDA says, being made “flexible.”
How flexible you ask? Well, in regards to whole grains — which countless doctors, scientists, and nutritionists recommend as way to incorporate important minerals and fiber into a child’s diet — the USDA will now allow states to grant exemptions to schools struggling to meet the whole-grain product requirement for the 2017-2018 school year. The HHFKA stipulated that baked goods, cereal grains, and ready-to-eat breakfast cereals contain either 100 percent whole grains or a minimum of 51 percent whole grains, with the remaining percentage fulfilled by enriched grains.
The Act also aimed to reduce sodium content — which the American Heart Association warns is a catalyst for high blood pressure and stroke — by setting maximum sodium levels over a 10-year period. Under Trump’s regulations the levels are now more lenient. But the most impactful and potentially most controversial change comes in the form of America’s favorite beverage — milk. Perdue will direct the USDA to begin the regulatory process for schools to serve one-percent flavored milk through the school meals programs. These tasty cartons of milk are beloved by children because a single eight-ounce portion contains 18 grams of sugar. Only time will tell how the Trump administration will further shift nutritional policy and recommendations.