The Trump administration has relaxed U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritional standards for school lunches that were implemented during the Obama administration. Several cafeteria directors have heralded the decision, asserting that it will result in more students eating what's put on their plate. Meanwhile, nutrition advocates are concerned that the relaxed standards will hinder efforts to curb childhood obesity.
On May 1, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced that the USDA would loosen several standards on school lunches while moving a sodium mandate that was set to go into effect in July 2017 to 2020. The Trump administration official asserted that the current standards were resulting in school lunches that students did not want to eat.
"We know meals cannot be nutritious if they're not consumed, if they're thrown out," Perdue said, according to the Washington Post. "We have to balance sodium and whole grain content with palatability."
The Agriculture Secretary pledged that the rollback wouldn't weaken nutrition standards but instead give "school food professionals the flexibility they need."
In 2012, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, born from a campaign by First Lady Michelle Obama, began instituting new standards of school lunch nutrition nationwide. The most prominent regulations mandated that all cafeterias had to serve fruit and vegetables during every meal, all meals be whole grain, and that all flavored-milk be fat-free.
The changes instituted by Perdue will allow schools to obtain waivers to serve foods that are at least 50 percent whole grain and to serve flavored milk with 1 percent fat.
"[Perdue] is not changing the standards per se, but he is allowing schools to not follow them," nutrition policy researcher David Pelletier of Cornell University told PolitiFact. "It's a bit like saying the posted speed limits on the roads remain the same, but you can go as fast as you want."
Several school cafeteria teachers in New York state welcomed the changes, asserting that they would afford them more flexibility to serve meals that students would be eager to eat.
"It doesn't put such a chokehold on the items that we can serve," director Sandy Cocca of the Sweet Home Central School District told The Buffalo News. "We don't want to put something on a plate that they're going to throw out. We want them to consume what's on the plate."
Director Kim Roll of the Tonawanda School District agreed: "Letting up a bit is a good thing for schools."
Cafeteria directors were especially appreciative of Perdue's decision to delay the scheduled sodium mandate to 2020. The regulation would have required cafeterias to cut the maximum amount of sodium allowed in lunches by half. Critics said that the regulation would have been too onerous, with only 935 milligrams of sodium allowed in elementary school lunches.
Director Bridget O'Brien Wood of Buffalo Public Schools noted that none of her colleagues wanted to fully reverse the changes made by Obama, but rather tinker to with them to find a balance between nutrition and taste.
"No one's abandoning the idea," O'Brien Wood said of Obama's efforts to reduce childhood obesity. "I think we've had to look at what's not working, and change things from there."
Not everyone is happy with the USDA rollback. Environmental Working Group president Ken Cook blasted Perdue's decision as a blow to the campaign against childhood obesity.
"Just because children would rather eat heavily salted, processed foods at school doesn't mean they should," Cook said in a statement, according to USA Today. "The president's fondness for Big Macs and KFC is well known, but we shouldn't let Colonel Sanders and McDonald's run the school cafeteria."