Last month Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced a rollback of nutrition standards for school lunches that have been successfully implemented for the last five years. The move threatens to undermine the progress made on improving children’s eating habits at the prompting of the $10.4 billion school food service industry.
The industry – sponsored in part by processed purveyors such as Domino’s Pizza, General Mills, PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, Schwan's and Conagra – lobbied the Trump administration to maintain the nearly toxic levels of sodium in school meals indefinitely and allow 75 percent of the grains in kids’ lunches to be highly processed, refined grains. Perdue did them one better, allowing 100 percent refined grains and throwing in a bonus – the discretion to serve sugary, low-fat milk. Beginning in the fall, these new rules will allow schools to apply for exemptions from the mandates on daily sodium limits, whole-grain food minimums and added sugars in low-fat milk.
Studies show that under the school nutrition standards of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 – championed in part by Michelle Obama – children’s eating habits improved, and the amount of food waste has stayed the same or declined. Today more than 98 percent of school districts are successfully meeting the updated standards.
The school lunch program feeds 32 million children who qualify for federally subsidized meals. Studies have tied good nutrition in kids to improved behavior, performance in school and brain development. Kids who eat both breakfast and lunch at school may get nearly 60 percent of their nutrition there, so it's important that what they eat is healthy.
But here's what Perdue's new standards will allow:
- More sodium. The current sodium standards are hardly standards at all. They were originally intended as a stepping stone on the way to meaningful decreases, which were supposed to go into effect this coming school year. But under Perdue, a permissible school lunch can have more sodium than a Kraft Foods Lunchable. A daily intake of 1,900 milligrams of sodium is toxic; the USDA standard will continue to allow 1,770 milligrams in school breakfast and lunch combined. If parents want to keep their kids' sodium intake to safe levels, they've got only 130 milligrams to work with at dinner.
- Fewer whole grains. The government's dietary guidelines recommend limiting the intake of refined grains and products made with refined grains. But up to half of the bread and other grains in school lunches may already be made with refined grains. Perdue granted complete exemption to the whole grain requirement for any school declaring a “hardship in obtaining whole grain-rich products acceptable to students.”
- Sugary low-fat milk. Before Perdue’s rollback, schools could serve chocolate or other flavored milk, but it had to be fat free. Perdue’s changes let kids choose low-fat milk with added sugar, adding empty calories to their lunches that will squeeze out calories previously allotted for more healthful items. This is in direct contradiction to the dietary guidelines to “limit calories from added sugars” and “choose nutrient-dense foods and beverages.”
Perdue argued that the rollbacks would result in less wasted food that kids don't want to eat. But any time a child's diet is changed, there will be waste as they adjust. Studies show that it can take 15 times or more for children to try and enjoy new foods. Developing a taste for a healthier diet takes time, and shifting course midstream disrupts successes. School food directors report that students' acceptance of the changes is improving, and that's confirmed by direct observation of the food left on their plates.
The food industry always claims it needs time to make food healthier. We can buy their argument and kick the can down the road – or we can act now to ensure our children enter adulthood with the best chance at a healthy and productive life.
For tips on the best foods to pack for lunch, visit EWG’s Food Scores database.