With a sympathetic administration in place, the food and beverage industry has wasted no time, lobbying intensely to roll back or delay a myriad of Obama-era healthy food and drink rules. Yesterday, they had their way with federal school meal standards.
Taking aim at one of former First Lady Michelle Obama’s signature achievements, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced the roll back of some school meal rules while visiting a Virginia elementary school. The USDA will put the brakes on the implementation of stricter sodium standards and continue to allow exemptions on 100% whole grain compliance. Both rules have been rolled out slowly to allow time for children and school food workers to adjust. Perdue also announced that 1% flavored milk would be allowed back into schools. Currently, only non-fat flavored milks are permitted in school cafeterias.
Healthy school nutrition standards were mandated in 2010 with the passage of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act. Mrs. Obama was a strong supporter of the legislation and successfully lobbied behind the scenes to ensure it passed. Over 31 million students eat school lunch every day, while 15 million eat school breakfast daily.
Sodium and whole grain rules had been the target of many complaints since the rules were implemented. According to yesterday’s announcement, the USDA will continue to grant exemptions to schools experiencing “hardship” in serving the required 100% whole grain products and will “take all necessary regulatory actions to implement a long term solution.”
Elaborating on the problems some schools are having with 100% whole grain implementation, Perdue said in a statement, “A perfect example is in the south, where the schools want to serve grits. But the whole grain variety has little black flakes in it, and the kids won’t eat it. The school is compliant with the whole grain requirements, but no one is eating the grits. That doesn’t make any sense.”
When it comes to sodium in school meals, the USDA has frozen content at the current levels allowed. For elementary school students, school lunches must have no more than 1,230 mg of sodium. Perdue’s new rule would maintain that level until at least 2020, putting off the more stringent requirement to reduce sodium to 935 mg.
The current levels of sodium, in a school lunch, give children almost three-quarters of the sodium allowed for the entire day and the public health community is concerned about this halt in progress. According to the American Heart Association, excess sodium intake is linked with high blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, and heart failure.
“Ninety percent of American kids eat too much sodium every day,” said Margo Wootan, Director of Nutrition Policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in a statement. “Schools have been moving in the right direction, so it makes no sense to freeze that progress in its tracks—and allow dangerously high levels of salt in school lunch.”
Patricia Montague, CEO of the School Nutrition Association (SNA), joined Perdue in Virginia during yesterday’s announcement. The SNA has flip-flopped in supporting the healthier school nutrition standards, at first praising Michelle Obama’s efforts but later opposing them. “I commend Secretary Perdue for taking this important step,” said Montague, in a statement. “We have been wanting flexibility so that schools can serve meals that are both nutritious and palatable.”
Perdue did not announce any changes in calorie maximums or requirements for fruits and vegetables, which some opponents had lobbied for and health advocates had strongly opposed.
According to the USDA, 97% of schools have implemented the healthy school nutrition standards. A study published in January, 2016 by JAMA Pediatrics found that “the implementation of the healthy school meal standards was associated with “the improved nutritional quality of meals selected by students. These changes appeared to be driven primarily by the increase in variety, portion size, and the number of servings of fruits and vegetables,” the study concludes.