‘This new rule deserves an F’: American Heart Association and CSPI slam new USDA school lunch rule

By Stephen Daniells contact

- Last updated on GMT

© Getty Images / monkeybusinessimages
© Getty Images / monkeybusinessimages
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) new School Meal Flexibility Rule has drawn sharp criticism from leading consumer groups, with the CSPI claiming the new rule slows down progress on combating obesity and sodium reduction.

The new rule, published last week​, would allow school nutrition directors to include 1% flavored milk and refined grains instead of whole-grain rich products in school meals. The rule would also revise the sodium targets for daily school breakfasts and lunches.

“Schools need flexibility in menu planning so they can serve nutritious and appealing meals,” ​said US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. “Based on the feedback we’ve gotten from students, schools, and food service professionals in local schools across America, it’s clear that many still face challenges incorporating some of the meal pattern requirements. Schools want to offer food that students actually want to eat. It doesn’t do any good to serve nutritious meals if they wind up in the trash can. These flexibilities give schools the local control they need to provide nutritious meals that school children find appetizing.”

Details

The interim rule allows schools to serve low-fat (1%) flavored milk. Currently, schools are permitted to serve low-fat and non-fat unflavored milk as well as non-fat flavored milk. States would also be allowed to grant exemptions to schools experiencing hardship in obtaining whole grain-rich products.

Perdue claimed that schools and industry also need more time to reduce sodium levels in school meals. So instead of further restricting sodium levels for SY 2018-2019, schools that meet the current – “Target 1” – limit will be considered compliant with USDA’s sodium requirements.

CSPI’s Wootan: Virtually 100% of schools are already complying with the final nutrition standards

In response to the USDA’s rule, Margo Wootan, vice president for nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), called the proposal, “a hammer in search of a nail.

“Virtually 100% of schools are already complying with the final nutrition standards, including the first phase of sodium reduction. The USDA should not be allowing dangerously high levels of salt in school meals, which may currently have two-thirds of a day’s sodium, or 1,420 milligrams, in a single high school lunch,” ​said Wootan.

“Nine out of 10 school-aged children are eating too much salt, which is why reducing sodium levels in school meals is so important. The USDA should be doubling down on helping schools reduce sodium, not slowing down progress, as the Trump administration proposed today.

“It’s just not the case that schools still need additional flexibility to meet the whole-grain requirement. If all schools in Alabama, Idaho, and Montana can serve whole grains to their students, schools in the rest of the states should be able to, as well. Kids don’t need more white flour in meals.

“The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has concluded that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is “one of the most important national obesity prevention policy achievements in recent decades.” We should be building on that progress, not impeding it,” ​added Wootan.

AHA: “We urge the USDA to […] reconsider taking this action.” 

Approximately 92% of school-age children in the US exceeded the 2015-20 Dietary Guidelines upper intake level for dietary sodium, according to the most recent available data from the CDC (2009-12).

Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association, was also critical of the USDA’s interim final rule, stating: “This new rule deserves an ‘F.’  It fails the test when it comes to helping our kids eat healthier at school.  

“In the last five years, nearly 100 percent of the nation’s participating schools have complied with updated school meal standards. Kids across the country have clearly benefited from these changes. Their meals have less salt, sugar and saturated fat, and they eat 16 percent more vegetables and 23 percent more fruit. Why would the USDA want to roll back the current standards and reverse this excellent progress?

“Fortunately, when these changes were first previewed by the USDA last May, many schools publicly declared that they would reject this rule and keep healthy foods on our kids’ plates. We strongly applaud these institutions for their ongoing commitment to the existing standards. 

“For those schools that may be experiencing challenges, chipping away at the nutrition standards to cater to special interests won’t solve their problems. Instead, the USDA should focus its time and resources on providing more technical assistance to any school that is struggling with offering more healthy food options.”

“This new rule is described as an effort to give the nation’s schools more “flexibility” on what foods to serve our children. But the truth is it would revoke school nutrition standards that will help kids attain better long-term health and academic success. We urge the USDA to leave these important nutrition standards intact and reconsider taking this action,” ​said Brown.

Support

On the flip side, School Nutrition Association (SNA), which is reported to represent 57,000 school nutrition professionals across the country, came out in support of the new rule.

“School nutrition professionals have achieved tremendous progress, modifying recipes, hosting student taste tests and employing a wide range of other tactics to meet regulations while also encouraging students to enjoy healthier school meals,” ​said SNA President Lynn Harvey, Ed.D., RDN, LDN, FAND, SNS.

“Despite these efforts, school nutrition professionals continue to report challenges with sodium and whole grain mandates, as well as limited access to whole grain waivers. SNA appreciates USDA’s desire to address challenges and will provide comment on how to improve a final rule to support the preparation of healthy school meals that appeal to students.”

Comment period

The action reflects a key initiative of USDA’s Regulatory Reform Agenda, developed in response to the President’s Executive Order to alleviate unnecessary regulatory burdens.

The USDA’s School Meal Flexibility Rule will be in effect for the 2018-19 school year, and the USDA “anticipates” extending this deadline through 2020-21. Public comments regarding the potential longer-term use of the rule may be submitted through January 29, 2018 at www.regulations.gov​ under Docket ID: FNS-2017-0021​.

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