USDA school meals overhaul means salt and refined, white flour back on the menu

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10 Dec 2018 --- The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has amended the nutrition rules for school meals established under the Administration of former US president Barack Obama, meaning that white bread and low-fat, flavored milk will be back on the menu across US school cafeterias. The move has drawn ire from nutrition advocates and think tanks but has been framed by US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue as “empowering” and giving “flexibility” back to school cafeterias. The rule is part of USDA’s Regulatory Reform Agenda, developed in response to President Trump’s Executive Order to eliminate “unnecessary regulatory burdens.”

With childhood obesity being one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century, the Obama Administration made the nutritional value of school meals an area of focus. Championed by former first lady Michelle Obama in 2010, the “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act” reduced school lunch calorie limits, cut sodium and trans fats and added more fruits, vegetables and whole grains to the menu.

The new “Child Nutrition Programs: Flexibilities for Milk, Whole Grains, and Sodium Requirements” final rule, to be published in its entirety on December 12, eases some of the restrictions established by the 2010 act.

Schools can now offer flavored, low-fat milk without calorie or sugar limits, over the non-fat version put in place by the Obama Administration. Whole grain rich options will only be required to be served 50 percent of the time, while the previous rule required all of the grains on the menu to be whole grain. Click to EnlargeNew nutrition standards for school meals are part of USDA’s Regulatory Reform Agenda, developed in response to President Trump’s Executive Order to eliminate “unnecessary regulatory burdens.”

Lastly, the new rule has adapted the sodium reduction targets by delaying the reduction targets to the school year 2024-2025, seven years later than initially required. The third and final sodium target established by the Obama Administration has been eliminated entirely. 

According to the Perdue, schools had reportedly been struggling to meet the original nutrition targets while providing “appetizing” meals.

“If kids are not eating what is being served, they are not benefiting and food is being wasted,” says Perdue. “We all have the same goals in mind, the health and development of our young people. The USDA trusts our local operators to serve healthy meals that meet local preferences and build bright futures with good nutrition.”

However, Margo G. Wootan, Center for the Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) Vice President for Nutrition, rebuked Perdue, noting that, “virtually all school districts have met the first sodium reduction targets. Instead of building on that progress, the Administration has chosen to jeopardize children’s health in the name of deregulation.”

The new sodium targets mean that school lunches will fail to be consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, she explains.

“The rule allows more white flour and other refined grains in place of whole grains in schools, reverting from all grains being whole grain-rich to only half. That more than 85 percent of schools are successful in serving whole grains (and not requesting waivers) shows that schools can serve and kids will eat whole grains,” she says.

CSPI polling shows that sixty percent of Americans opposed the Administration’s proposal for rolling back school nutrition and over 80,000 submitted comments to USDA, joined by more than 50 prominent health and child welfare organizations and more than 50 prominent scientists and academics.

However, The School Nutrition Association (SNA), a national, non-profit organization that represents school nutrition professionals across the country, has applauded the USDA move.

“This final rule strikes a healthy balance. Schools will continue to meet strong nutrition standards but can prepare meals that appeal to a wide range of students,” says Gay Anderson, SNA President.

According to the association, despite efforts to boost the consumption of healthy school meals, student lunch participation has gradually declined, as nearly 2 million fewer students chose school lunch each day since the updated nutrition standards took effect. It is hoped that Perdue’s final rule will “entice” more students to eat school meals.

Regarding the whole grain change, a recent SNA survey found that despite efforts to increase student acceptance of whole grains, 65 percent of districts reported challenges with the current mandate that all grains must be whole grain rich. Many schools reportedly struggled with regional and cultural preferences for a few specific items such as white rice and pasta, since few families or restaurants serve only whole grain-rich foods.

The elimination of the final sodium reduction target was particularly commended, as the SNA noted that naturally occurring sodium in meat, milk and other low-fat dairy foods would force schools to take nutritious choices off the menu. 

The American Heart Association (AHA), however, strongly opposed the USDA change, particularly regarding the sodium reduction targets.

“While we agree that program operators who face some challenges should receive assistance to help them cross that finish line, we do not agree that weakening the standards is the appropriate course of action,” John Warner, President of the AHA, says in a statement.

“The documented tracking of high blood pressure in childhood that continues into adulthood is of great concern because currently nine out of ten children consume excess sodium and about one in six children aged 8 to 17 have elevated blood pressure,” notes Warner.

The AHA’s concluding statement urges the USDA not to amend the school nutrition standards, noting that evidence has shown the programs to be successful and that children are showing better health outcomes as a result. Instead of rolling back on gains made, the department should work with schools that are experiencing challenges and offer more individualized technical assistance. 

Parents will be disappointed when they learn that the meals served to their kids in school are under attack from President Trump’s deregulatory agenda, concludes Wootan.

By Laxmi Haigh

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