President Trump official gets a thumbs up from local cafeteria directors for his move to loosen Obama-era nutrition standards.
Former First Lady Michelle Obama spearheaded the regulations, which set fat, sugar and sodium limits on school foods. Health advocates praised those requirements, which went into effect in 2012.
Lobbying groups for nutrition directors and companies that sell food to schools also called the Obama regulations too strict.
Trump’s Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue relaxed the rules.
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 told reporters after eating chicken nuggets and salad with a group of fifth graders. “We have to balance sodium and whole grain content with palatability.”
But such rollbacks have been rejected by public health and nutrition advocates, who say the stricter nutrition rules are critical tools in the fight against obesity.
“I feel that we have made such progress in schools meals over the past five years,” said Miriam Nelson, a public health researcher who helped advise Michelle Obama’s nutrition initiatives. “This progress has contributed to reversing the trend in childhood obesity rates nationwide. … We want to continue the progress we have made.”
School lunches have seen a radical makeover in the past five years. Since 2012, when the nutrition rules mandated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act went into effect, cafeterias have had to slash the amount of calories, trans-fats, sodium and refined grains in their foods, replacing cafeteria staples such as conventional pizza with salt-reduced, whole-grain versions. They are also required to serve fruit, a variety of vegetables and low-fat or fat-free milk. Schools may serve chocolate milk, but it must be skim milk.
Under current rules, all the grains offered in school cafeterias must be 50 percent or more whole grain. Schools also have adopted new sodium limits, which range by grade and were scheduled to continue dropping through 2020. Currently, elementary school lunches may include up to 1,230 milligrams of sodium. That was set to fall to 640 milligrams.
In the cafeteria, though, kids balked at eating some of the food.
“A whole-wheat spaghetti – they won’t touch it,” said Kim Roll, food director at Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District.
“It doesn’t put such a chokehold on the items that we can serve,” said Sandy Cocca, head of food service at Sweet Home Central School District. “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.”
Perdue’s announcement changes that: Schools will not be required to make any changes to the amount of sodium in the meals they serve until after 2020. The Department of Agriculture will also continue granting waivers to schools allowing them to opt out of a requirement to serve only whole-grain enriched foods. They will soon be permitted to serve chocolate and flavored milk, provided it’s reduced fat.
“We’re not unwinding or winding back any nutrition standards at all,” Perdue said. “We’re giving school food professionals the flexibility they need.”
Several cafeteria managers praised the move.
“This letting-up-a-bit is a good thing for schools,” said Roll, who has worked as a food director for 27 years and for the last 10 at Ken-Ton.
The story was similar at Cayuga Heights Elementary, in the Depew School District, where Food Service Director Barbara Albi applied for and received a waiver a few years ago after students stopped eating the 100 percent whole grain bagels at breakfast. Reviews of the 51 percent whole grain bagels have been better.
“The best bagels ever,” third-grader Cathryn Lohr, 10, said, seated at a lunch table with classmates.
“Squishy,” 9-year-old Isabelle Hoffhines called them.
“And buttery,” interjected Sienna Seely, also 9.
That’s the kind of exemption the administration’s moves will continue to allow.
At Frontier Central School District, Food Service Director Jason Whipple said his staff will be switching from 100 percent whole grain pizza to a 51 percent, enriched whole grain option.
He thinks the federal plans will let food directors be more creative in what they serve students.
“I just hope they don’t go back too far,” he said.