Trump’s school lunch program: How the administration is changing health standards

School lunches are about to be more dairy-laden — and, as a result, much less healthy.

The new school lunch rules, which roll back Obama-era nutrition standards for federally subsidized school lunches, were first announced in May 2017 by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue (who has no relation to Perdue chicken, but does have other ties to agribusiness).

Under the new rules, cafeterias no longer have to worry about reducing sodium in school lunches, nor do they have to transition to serving whole grains. Schools can once again offer 1 percent chocolate and strawberry milk — under the previous rules, flavored milks had to be non-fat. (“I wouldn’t be as big as I am today without chocolate milk,” Perdue reportedly said at the time of the announcement.) The Trump administration codified the change last December.

Perdue’s initial changes to the school lunch rules are mostly cosmetic but signal bigger shifts down the line, Vox’s Julia Belluz reported last month. Perhaps most troublingly, the changes are a big handout to the dairy industry, which makes a substantial amount of money from its contracts with public schools and was reportedly struggling under the Obama-era regulations, according to a new report by Bloomberg.

The Trump administration is gutting the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act

Perdue is essentially slowing down the implementation of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The law required the National School Lunch Program to use guidelines from the Institute of Medicine to make school lunches healthier. The regulations prioritized whole grains over more processed grains, an emphasis on whole fruits and vegetables, and a reduction in sodium, full-fat milk, and meat. Schools were given 10 years to gradually reduce the amount of sodium in school lunches, with the first phase going into effect in 2014, and the following phase in 2019.

Since the law focused on children’s health, it became a key part of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign against childhood obesity. Notably, it passed with bipartisan support and was endorsed by the School Nutrition Association, a nonprofit representing student meal providers. But less than a year later, both Republican lawmakers and certain agricultural lobbyists came out in full force against the law, pointing to it as evidence of a left-wing nanny state run amok.

“We didn’t find favor with efforts to paint certain vegetables as, for unspecified reasons, less healthy than other vegetables,” Kraig R. Naasz, the head of the American Frozen Food Institute, which represents approximately 500 makers of frozen foods, told the New York Times magazine in 2014. (The rules also called for a reduction in starchy vegetables, e.g., French fries.)

Reports of students throwing out their new, healthier lunches began pouring in. Before long, the Obama administration and its allies had lost the support of the School Nutrition Association, which initially backed the bill.

Perdue’s rollbacks mean that, schools now have until 2024 to further reduce school lunch sodium requirements, and is reducing the amount of whole grains required each week.

Perdue is framing the new changes as a benefit to both kids and schools, but experts warn that the relaxed rules — most notably the sodium requirement — could have adverse effects on children’s health. “Virtually all school districts met the first sodium reduction targets,” Margo Wootan, a longtime nutrition advocate and director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told Vox in a statement in December. “Instead of building on that progress, the Administration has chosen to jeopardize children’s health in the name of deregulation.”

Are the relaxed school lunch standards a handout to agribusiness?

Perdue’s war on healthy school lunches isn’t just about deregulation — according to a new report by Bloomberg, it’s also a big favor to agribusiness, particularly to the dairy industry, which was hampered by the previous regulations.

According to the Bloomberg report, school lunch programs account for an estimated 7.6 percent of all fluid milk sales. Dean Foods Co., the largest dairy processor in the US, ships approximately 1.8 billion half-pints of TruMoo and DairyPure to American schools each year, and kids tend to prefer flavored milks — two-thirds of school milk sales are flavored. The health standard rollbacks aren’t just about milk, though; they’re also about cheese, particularly the sodium-rich cheeses commonly found in school cafeterias.

Since dairy consumption is down among other sectors of the population — those that tend to have more autonomy over their dietary habits — school children remain a key demographic for the industry, according to the Bloomberg report. Getting kids hooked on milk early isn’t just good for business in the short-term; these companies also hope to shape their buying habits early on, so they’ll be lifelong dairy consumers.

Health-conscious parents could choose to opt out of school lunches altogether, deciding to pack nutritious meals for their kids instead of letting schools feed them pizza and mac and cheese. But for the 30 million students who depend on free and low-cost school lunches that are subsidized by the federal government, the relaxed nutrition standards could be hugely detrimental.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was a game-changing way of providing low-income students with healthy meals — by relaxing these rules, the Trump administration is exacerbating a system where only those who can afford to eat healthy will be able to do so.

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