Commentary

USDA Again Takes A Knife To Michelle Obama's School Nutrition Guidelines

To the delight of Big Food and the consternation of nutritionists, the Trump Administration has proposed to overhaul school lunch regulations championed by Michelle Obama in the name of “flexibility.”

“The proposal targets the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which the former first lady actively promoted. It phased in healthier school meal rules with guidelines for nutrition, requiring school cafeterias to increase the servings of fruits and vegetables,” Savannah Behrmann reports for USA Today.

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“The announcement Friday came on [Michelle] Obama’s birthday. The new rules will affect nutritional programs that feed over 20 million students across the USA,” she adds.

“For instance, instead of being required to offer higher quantities of nutrient-dense red and orange vegetables such as carrots, peppers and butternut squash, schools would have more discretion over the varieties of vegetables they offer each day. In addition, students will be allowed to purchase more entree items as a la carte selections,” NPR’s Allison Aubrey reports.

It’s “an effort long sought by food manufacturers and some school districts that have chafed at the cost of Mrs. Obama’s prescriptions for fresh fruit and vegetables,” Lola Fadulu writes for The New York Times.

USDA Deputy Under Secretary Brandon 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,” Laura Reiley  writes  for The Washington Post.

“But Colin Schwartz, deputy director of legislative affairs for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says 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,’” Reiley adds.

The Trump administration points to the cost of wasted food.

“Schools and school districts continue to tell us that there is still too much food waste and that more common-sense flexibility is needed to provide students nutritious and appetizing meals,” Agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue claims in the news release announcing the proposed changes.

“The Department of Agriculture’s own research on the effects of the Obama-era rules undercuts this claim, however. In its 2019 ‘School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study,’ the department found no dramatic changes in the amount of food waste, and also found compliance with the rules led to better participation rates in school meal programs,” Catherine Kim points out for Vox.

“Experts fear that should the rules be changed, schools will try to substitute fresh fruit and vegetables with more cost-efficient foods that lack nutrition. For example, experts worry baked sweets like muffins could be substituted for servings of fruit, and that potato products such as french fries could replace green vegetables,” Kim continues.

“The National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity said allowing à la carte purchases could create a ‘giant junk food loophole.’ It could also lead to children frequently turning to meals that are meant to be eaten once a week, like hamburgers,” the NYT’s Fadulu writes.

“With one in three of our kids on track to have diabetes, it’s unconscionable that the Trump administration would do the bidding of the potato and junk food industries,” Sam Kass, who served as the executive director of the Let’s Move! campaign, tells Fadulu.

This is not the first attempt to weaken the Obama-era nutritional efforts.

“The Trump administration acted in December 2018 to roll back requirements the Obama administration had imposed under the Healthy Kids Act to increase whole-grain foods and reduce sodium in school meals,” Bloomberg’s Mike Dorning reminds us.

“The USDA’s justifications for rolling back school nutrition standards are flimsy, and the growing evidence of the benefits of the previous standards further undermine the agency’s new policy,” Rachel Kogan wrote in a March 2019 analysis of that roll back for the Health Affairs blog.

The latest proposals “are far from final. They will remain open for public comment for 60 days once they are published in the Federal Register, according to the Department of Agriculture,” Tim Balk writes for the New York Daily News.

Oh, and “a spokesperson for the Agriculture Department told the Daily News in an email that the ‘USDA did not intentionally announce this proposed rule’ on Obama’s 56th birthday,” Balk adds.

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