The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently announced plans to loosen school nutrition standards. The agency’s proposed rule will reintroduce 1 percent chocolate milk, cut in half whole grain serving requirements, and relax sodium restrictions.
Existing guidelines were set by the Obama-era Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA). HHFKA strengthened standards for the National School Lunch, Breakfast, and Smart Snacks Programs by requiring more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and limiting fat content in milk. HHFKA also devised sodium reduction targets to be met by 2022.
The Trump administration claims HHKFA constraints are unappealing to students and difficult for school administrators to follow. “These proposed changes respond directly to the needs of nutrition professionals who are the experts on-the-ground, hearing from our children every day,” USDA officials wrote in a press release.
The administration has raised similar concerns in the past. In 2017, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue said, “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.”
But the agency’s own data refutes these claims. A 2019 USDA study concludes that the nutritional value of lunches spiked 40 percent between 2009 and 2015 under HHFKA guidelines. During that time, children ate more whole grains, greens, and beans, and less refined grains, empty calories, and sodium. Food waste did not appear to increase.
“The [USDA] proposal makes no sense because we’ve already moved forward,” Dr. Katie Wilson, executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance, tells Food Tank. The nonprofit alliance aims to provide students with fresh, healthy meals.
Wilson notes that most students grew up accustomed to HHFKA standards. “They don’t know any different,” she says. In 2009, only 14 percent of schools participating in the National School Lunch Program offered foods that met the 2012 nutrition standards, according to the USDA. By 2016, that number jumped to 99 percent.
Wilson argues that it’s not enough to base standards on student preferences. “I think if we continue to hide behind that,” she says, “we give people an excuse to not do better.” Wilson points out that schools require algebra regardless of whether or not students enjoy it. “It’s the same with school nutrition. We’re there to educate kids.”
Wilson, as well as organizations like the Center for Science in the Public Interest, argue that the proposal disregards science and expert recommendations—including the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 90 percent of children consume too much sodium—which increases their risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. And according to the USDA, the average child consumes too many refined grains and too few whole grains. Current dairy standards, which ban low-fat flavored milk, are based on recommendations by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
Researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health find that the 2012 and 2014 nutrition standards could prevent as many as two million cases of childhood obesity over ten years. A second Harvard study finds that, if not for HHFKA standards, obesity would have been 47 percent higher in 2018.
Opponents of the proposal also question its timing. School nutrition standards must be based on USDA dietary guidelines, and the 2020-2025 guidelines have yet to be released.
The USDA proposed rule is open for public comment through December 28, 2020.
Photo courtesy of CDC, Unsplash
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