USDA Proclamation on School Meals Garners Criticism from Lobby Group

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02 May 2017 --- The US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue has signed a proclamation that will allow schools to begin “the process of restoring local control of guidelines on whole grains, sodium and milk” and give them greater flexibility in meeting regulations for school meals. Although Patricia Montague, CEO of the School Nutrition Association, praised the proclamation, it received criticism from CSPI Nutrition Policy Director Margo G. Wootan, who says that the new secretary has started to “roll back progress on the quality of the meals served to America’s children.”

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is a US consumer watchdog that advocates for a healthier food system. 

In the proclamation, released on 1 May, Purdue points to the need for “flexibility in serving whole grain-rich foods in school meals,” and directs the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to “begin the regulatory process to provide schools with additional options in regard to the serving of whole grains.” In addition, the proclamation recognizes schools that meet sodium Target I for school years 2017–2020 as “compliant with USDA sodium requirements.”

Sodium Target I refers to a set of sodium level reduction recommendations for school breakfasts and lunches, which went into effect in 2014. The proclamation allows schools to drop stricter sodium level recommendations (Target 2), which were initially set for July 2017.

The USDA website notes that government requirements for school meals have resulted in additional costs for school districts and states and that “most states are reporting that they’ve seen a decrease in student participation in school lunches, as nation-wide about one million students choose not to have a school lunch each day.” As a result, schools are encountering increasing costs but decreasing revenue from school meals.

“Policies that encourage healthy eating should enjoy bipartisan consensus. Unfortunately, special interests are prevailing on the Trump Administration to delay or undo many of the important nutrition advances of the last decade,” Wootan said in a statement on the watchdog’s website.

“Similarly, chain restaurants have been successfully implementing the calorie labeling requirements enacted into law seven long years ago. Calories on menus have proven both useful and popular with consumers. Yet the Trump Administration has signaled that it wants to subject menu labeling to even more years of delay,” she says, adding that “Republicans are just as likely as Democrats to suffer from diabetes, heart disease, and other diet-related health problems. Yet the Trump Administration is myopically putting Big Food’s interests over the interests of American consumers.”

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