National News

Trump Administration Rolls Back Obama-Era Rules for School Lunches

Posted December 8, 2018 2:46 p.m. EST

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is not shy about sharing his taste for chocolate milk.

“I wouldn’t be as big as I am today without chocolate milk,” Perdue told reporters in May 2017, while discussing his plan to relax Obama-era school lunch rules. It was one of his first days on the job.

This past week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced its final plans to lower nutrition standards for grains, flavored milks and sodium in school cafeterias that were part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 and that Michelle Obama, the former first lady, had advocated.

The changes, all of which will go into effect by July, apply to school meals that qualify for at least some federal reimbursement. They may seem relatively minor on paper, but like many Trump administration moves to reverse Obama-era policies, they come with some controversy.

First, the grains: The Obama-era rules required that schools must serve entirely “whole grain-rich” foods, meaning that the product — whether it is pizza, pasta or hamburger buns — must contain at least 50 percent whole grains.

Under the new rules, only half of the grain products on the cafeteria’s weekly menu must be whole grain-rich. Theoretically, that means schools could serve all whole grain-rich food three days a week and food made with refined grains the other two days.

The Trump administration asserts in the new rules that administrators have struggled to find food products that meet these standards while also pleasing students. Schools have been able to request exemptions from the rules if they demonstrate financial hardship, and the government has said the most popular requests have been for regional staples like grits in the South and tortillas in the Southwest.

But the current administration asserted that the exemptions process was not sustainable and that some schools found it too burdensome.

Not all food service administrators have problems with the current rules. Ann Cooper, food service director for Boulder Valley Schools, in Colorado, said the district served only whole grain-rich foods and never received complaints.

It is hard for many students to even tell when foods like tortillas are made with some whole grain flour, said Cooper, who is also president of the Chef Ann Foundation, which provides grants to help schools serve healthier food.

“It’s not like in the 1960s when whole grain was like eating a hockey puck,” she said. “Do we really need more white bread in our schools?”

As for the milk, the Trump administration is allowing schools to serve low-fat flavored milks, rather than just the nonfat version. This change was already in place for this school year, but Thursday’s announcement made it permanent.

The rationale, according to the new rules, is to make sure children keep up their milk consumption.

“The kids told me that the flavored milk, which was limited to nonfat, was not as tasty as they would like,” Perdue said at the May 2017 news conference.

To back up the rule change, the Agriculture Department cited its own study concluding that milk consumption per person had decreased from 2000 to 2016, though the data is not specific to children.

Miguel Villarreal, director of food and nutritional services for the Novato Unified School District in Northern California, said the district had chosen not to serve flavored milk at its schools at all because of the sugar content. “It’s like giving them a can of soda,” he said.

Villarreal said when flavored milk was removed from the menu, milk consumption did drop temporarily until students became accustomed to the unflavored version. “If I can educate the kids to drink nonflavored milk, then we’re doing a service for those kids,” he said.

The Trump administration’s new sodium rules are less polarizing. Schools will still have to reduce sodium in lunches, but they will not be required to do so as aggressively.

The School Nutrition Association, an advocacy organization that represents school-food professionals, cheered the new regulations in a news release Thursday, praising the Trump administration for its flexibility with the standards. The group counts many of the country’s largest food companies among its backers.

Karen Perry Stillerman, a senior analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said it was unclear why the Trump administration would backtrack when schools were in good standing with the nutritional goals. A 2016 news release from the USDA said that more than 99 percent of schools in the country reported that they were meeting the Obama-era standards.

Stillerman said she would prefer that the government offer extra help to schools that were not meeting the nutritional requirements rather than lowering the standards across the country.

“It seems like a small thing,” she said. “But the behavioral research shows you have to offer nutritious food to kids over and over and be consistent.”