Public health advocates push back against USDA proposals to ‘simplify’ school meal standards

By Elizabeth Crawford contact

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty
Source: Getty

Related tags: school lunch, Usda, Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act

Two proposals characterized by the US Department of Agriculture as giving schools “additional flexibilities” around the food they serve students and as a solution to food waste in cafeterias are, according to public health advocates, “a step in the wrong direction” and an “assault on children’s health.”

After joining second graders for lunch last Friday at an elementary school in Texas, USDA Sec. Sonny Perdue announced proposed regulations that he said would “put local school and summer food service operators back in the driver’s seat of their programs”​ by further rolling back the nutrition standards outlined in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which is a capstone for former first lady Michelle Obama’s efforts to reduce childhood obesity, required schools to offer children more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, serve only skim or low-fat milk and reduce the amount of sodium and fat on the menu overall.

While many of these changes were slated to be phased in to give school staff and food manufacturers time to revamp offerings, it rankled some in the food industry and at schools because they perceived the new standards as too strict and worried that they were too expensive to implement and that children would reject the food – leading to more food waste and lower participation in the school meals programs. In response, the Trump Administration has slowly eroded the standards – first by delaying them and then in December either eliminating some, further delaying others and reverting to some former standards.

The most recent one-two punch announced Friday includes a the “Simplifying Meal Serve and Monitoring Requirements in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs”​ and the “Streamlining Program Requirements and Improving Integrity in the Summer Food Service Program,”​ both of which are slated for publication in the Federal Register Jan. 23.

The first would halve the amount of fruit to as little as a half cup required at breakfast for meals served outside the cafeteria and would eliminate a requirement that schools serve grains at breakfast. It also would reduce the amount of red and orange vegetables and legumes that schools currently are required to offer and instead allow schools to serve more potatoes and other starchy vegetables.

Potentially the most controversial change in that proposal would allow schools to serve any entrée offered through the reimbursable meal program on their own as part of the a-la-carte program. According to the American Heart Association, this last provision would give schools more flexibility, as promised by Perdue, but it also would eliminate the requirement that children select a balanced meal.

“Children could, for example, purchase three slices of pizza in the a-la-carte line instead of purchasing a nutritionally balanced, reimbursable lunch that contains a slice of pizza, salad and fruit,”​ AHA said in a statement.

The second proposal would strengthen monitoring of summer feeding programs “to help sponsors maximize their resources” ​and clarify performance standards and eligibility requirements for sites, according to USDA. The department says the change also would streamline the application process for “high-performing, experienced operators,”​ and reduce paperwork.

Mitigating food waste

While many of the original concerns voiced by schools about the impact of the stricter standards in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 did not pan out, the issue of food waste remained a legitimate concern before and after the act went into effect, according to research published this month in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics based on USDA data.

The USDA data​ show that following enactment of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the Healthy Eating Index scores for meals served at public schools on average increased to 82% of the maximum possible score from 58% pre-implementation.

Similarly, it found that participation rates were highest at the schools with the healthiest meals, and as participation went up, schools had more leverage to negotiate lower costs for preparing the meals.

What did not change, however, was the amount of food waste. Research shows that after implementation of the standards students wasted about a third of vegetables and milk, a quarter of fruit, fruit juice and grains and a fifth of combination entrees and meat or meat alternatives. This is about the same as before implementation – the only major difference was more legumes were wasted after implementation.

Recognizing that food waste needs to be addressed, AHA argues there are “other effective strategies to reduce food waste in schools, such as giving students more time to eat; putting recess before lunch; marketing healthy foods to kids; and involving students in meal planning, not of which jeopardizes the health of our children.”

Others also not that lowering the nutritional standards of the food served will not reduce food waste, as indicated by the extent of the problem prior to implementing the higher standards.

“A step in the wrong direction”

The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 was created partly in response to the childhood obesity epidemic that threatens the longevity of younger generations by increasing their risk of diet-related chronic diseases.

Since the act passed, obesity rates among preschool age children has declined slightly, but “we continue to face an enormous challenge”​ with nearly one in three qualifying as overweight or obese, according to the Partnership for a Healthier America, which also was spearheaded initially by former First Lady Obama.

Reflecting on the extent of the risk as well as food science from the past three years that shows eating more fruits and vegetables is good for the health of people and the planet, PHA President and CEO Nancy Roman argues “the new proposed rule changes from the USDA Food and Nutrition Service appear to be a step in the wrong direction.”

She argues, “Putting politics aside, the science of the past few years suggests we should be increasing the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables to each meal. Young children especially need more exposure to unprocessed, easy-to-eat, fruits, vegetables and greens.”

AHA agrees, noting, “Healthy school meals help combat childhood obesity and poor cardiovascular health, [and] they also help establish a foundation for a lifetime of healthy behavior.”

As such, it adds, “This proposed rule would be detrimental to the long-term health of our children and erase years of progress in child nutrition in our country.”

Room for improvement

The current school meal nutrition standards are not perfect, many health advocates agree, including the School Nutrition Association – representatives of which were with Perdue when he announced these proposals.

SNA has advocated for more flexibility around school nutrition standards since the 2010 guidelines went into effect, arguing that “a few of the requirements contributed to reduced lunch participation, higher costs and food waste.”

In response, SNA President Gay Anderson, noted USDA’s rollback of some of the standards last December is “helping us manage these challenges and prepare nutritious meals that appeal to diverse student tastes.”

She added that she is eager to review the proposed changes announced on Friday, and remains “grateful for USDA’s ongoing dialogue with school nutrition professionals and desire to ensure school meal programs operate smoothly to benefit students.”

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