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School lunches: the regulatory reduction of the deaf tone of the Trump administration

The Trump administration wants to keep salt, fat and sugar in children's lunches.

The new rules, announced for the first time in May 2017 by Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue as part of a plan to "Make school meals excellent again," will officially relax the Obama era nutrition standards for children. school lunch programs with federal subsidies.

That means that 99,000 schools, which feed 30 million children, can offer 1 percent chocolate and strawberry milk again, more refined white flour products and, most importantly, freeze sodium levels in school lunches instead. to reduce them even more.

"These common-sense flexibilities provide excellent customer service to our local school nutrition professionals, while providing children with the world-class food service they deserve," Perdue said in a statement. In May of 2017, when the agency enacted temporary legislation before the new final rule, the USDA said the schools had been asking for more control over the whole grains, sodium and milk that serve the children.

But it's hard not to see the ad as an attack on meaningful nutritional improvements in the school lunch program during the Obama administration, and Michelle Obama's legacy of battling obesity.

Thanks to the Healthy Hunger-Free Children Act of 2010, the 30 million children who depend on free and low-cost meals provided by the program now get more fruits, vegetables and whole grains instead of tacos and meat. mysterious They had come to wait. Of all the issues to be prioritized, Perdue has been targeting school lunches since his first days in office.

Perdue's changes are mostly cosmetic, but indicate that there is more to come

To understand what is changing, we must first explain what the previous administration achieved. The Healthy Hunger-Free Children's Law focused on cleaning school meals, which was, frankly, a carnival of unhealthy and unhealthy options. Since school lunches are an important touchstone for the nutrition of many American children, approving the act became a key element of Michelle Obama's Let & # 39; s Move campaign to combat childhood obesity.

The law required the federal government to use the recommendations of the Institute of Medicine to make the National School Lunch Program more nutritious, with more whole grains, a wider variety of fruits and vegetables, and less sodium, whole milk and meat.

The law also mandated that schools stop selling snacks loaded with fat, sugar and salt, such as sweetened drinks and chocolate bars, in coffee shops and vending machines, and replace those offers with more nutritious and low-calorie alternatives such as fruit cups and granola bars. . The USDA also granted schools 10 years to gradually reduce sodium in the lunches they served. The first point of reference for the reduction came into effect in 2014, and it was assumed that the second phase would come into effect next school year.

Perdue's USDA will allow schools to delay that second benchmark to further reduce sodium levels in school lunches until 2024-2025, seven years after the initial requirement. He also wants schools to be able to serve 1 percent flavored milk again and only guarantee that half of the weekly grains in school lunches and breakfast are whole grains.

Some of these changes are more superficial than significant. Schools already served flavored nonfat milk, so the addition of 1 percent flavor milk is not a major change. And schools could already apply for exemptions to move to full versions of certain products, so Perdue's USDA is simply relaxing the process further.

Freezing over sodium reductions. It is the most notable turn, since it means that schools can still serve lunches for children that meet their maximum recommended daily sodium intake for another six years.

"Virtually all school districts have reached the first sodium reduction targets. Instead of taking advantage of that progress, the Administration has chosen to endanger the health of children in the name of deregulation, "said Margo Wootan, a nutrition advocate and director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Interests Public, in a statement.

The most important thing is that these changes feel like a sign that they will come more, Wootan told Vox last May. Legally, it would not really be too difficult for the Trump administration to further reverse school nutrition standards and dismantle the pieces of the Healthy and Hunger Free Act. "To change the nutrition standards, the agency would have to go through the regulation," he said. "They do not need Congress to do it." And with their new rules, that's what they're doing.

However, politically, pushing back school lunch standards can be a bit more complicated, Wootan added, since most parents support the legislation. And while students and schools complained about the standards in the first few days, and even experienced some income losses, they have largely adapted to them without long-term financial impact. To date, almost all schools in the US UU They are in compliance. That may be the reason why the administration, at least for now, is treading lightly.

To justify the movement, Perdue has used the argument that Republicans back again and again: "If children do not eat their food and end up in the trash, they do not receive any nutrition, which undermines the intent of the program," he said. in May 2017. Food waste is a problem in schools, but it has little to do with nutrition standards: food waste levels did not change after the standards were implemented, and researchers have found that children In the program they are actually eating more fruits and vegetables today.

"Our research shows that participation in the school lunch program has actually increased among low-income children and remained high among children who buy full-price meals, suggesting that the children have also adapted," Juliana Cohen, a nutrition professor at Harvard and Merrimack College who has studied food waste at school, told Vox in 2017.

"The real [challenge for reducing food waste] is to focus on palatability, "he added." If we do not focus on the taste of food and really improve the taste of food, it probably will not address food waste in schools. "Relaxation of related standards with milk, whole grains and salt will not do it.

The movement also seems quite dull. "The public has never been more interested in nutrition," said Wootan, "which shows how out of touch with this administration it is with respect to where the American people are and how they regularly put special interests before the interests of the overwhelming majority. of the Americans. "

We will have to wait and see what other changes come from the USDA, but the announcement is not good for the movement of food or for the children of the United States, whose obesity rates are projected to rise.

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