In an attempt to make school nutrition standards easier to attain, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue recently announced more "flexible" requirements. The final plan, published Wednesday in the Federal Register, goes into effect Feb. 11, 2019. It has brought cheers and jeers from school nutritionists and watchdog groups alike.
Supporters agree with Perdue that better nutrition is of no use if the students won’t eat the healthier options, which is already a problem for some schools. USDA data show the number of students eating meals at school peaked in 2010 and dropped by about 8 percent since: In 2010, 5.2 million students ate school lunch, but by 2017, it was 4.8 million.
Opponents of the changes argue that instead of scrapping the guidelines set in 2010, it would be better to stick with them and let children become accustomed to more nutritious foods. Most school systems had already met or were very close to meeting the sodium restriction by the deadline set previously and many are using technology to figure out what the kids want to eat and are making healthy adjustments based on feedback.
Opponents have called the rollback another attempt by President Donald Trump to undo gains that were made by the Obama administration. The stricter guidelines were part of former first lady Michelle Obama’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act , which Congress passed in 2010.
In a May 1, 2017 press release on the impending changes, the headline proclaimed: “Ag Secretary Perdue Moves to Make School Meals Great Again.”
Public comment on the changes was overwhelmingly in favor, with most categories seeing less than 1 percent opposition.
The most notable changes are:
- Allowing flavored, low-fat milk to children in school meal programs, and to participants age six and older in the Special Milk Program for Children and the Child and Adult Care Food Program;
- Requiring that only half, instead of all, of the weekly grains in the school lunch and breakfast menu be whole grain-rich, permitting more white flour and other refined grains; and
- Providing more time to reduce sodium levels in school meals.
Perdue said, “These common-sense flexibilities provide excellent customer service to our local school nutrition professionals, while giving children the world-class food service they deserve.”
School nutritionists in Georgia are among the supporters of the new standards.
"Here in metro Atlanta we don't have the same challenges as some poorer rural communities in meeting the standards," Cindy Culver, director of school nutrition for Marietta City Schools, said. Access to a variety of foodstuffs and fresh produce year-round make it easier to adhere to the 2010 rules. Some districts do less "scratch" cooking and rely heavily on processed or manufactured foods. Until the food industry develops palatable products with less sodium it will be harder for those schools to comply, she said.
Even so, it wasn’t easy for Marietta to meet the sodium and whole-grain requirements.
"Let's face it, there are three things that make food taste good: salt, fat and sugar," Culver said, adding that reconfiguring recipes and requiring vendors to supply lower-sodium options were difficult.
“And whole-grain pasta doesn’t hold up well on the line,” she said. “That was another big challenge that was hard to meet.”
Culver, the past chair for the School Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group, a professional interest group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, understands the importance of the stricter guidelines, but said students consume less sodium through school meals than other sources, which statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirm.
Meeting those old guidelines was exponentially more challenging for Gwinnett County, the state’s largest school district.
"We had to step outside the guidelines and had a few waivers in for the whole-grain requirement over the past couple of years," said Karen Hallford, assistant director of school nutrition for Gwinnett County Schools.
Biscuits, pastas and saltines made from whole grains were items students just weren’t eating.
“We are currently meeting target one for sodium levels and now have more time to reach target two,” Hallford added, referring to the two-phase sodium-reduction plan.
All public schools in the federal School Nutrition Program were required to meet target one by 2014. The new rules give them ten years to meet the next target.
Gwinnett, like many other school systems, has devised ways to make sure kids are actually consuming the healthier foods put before them. With an app called Nutrislice, students and parents can get nutrition information, menus and updates on changes. They may also give feedback and rate the fare. The school system also conducts focus groups and seeks comments through student surveys.
“We’re constantly making adjustments to menus,” said Hallford who oversees 20.5 million lunches and 10.25 million breakfasts each year. “Students have much more sophisticated palates and they want food that’s more in line with what they eat outside school. We work to do that while maintaining nutrition standards.”
Margo G. Wootan, vice president for nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said, "Virtually all school districts have met the first sodium-reduction targets" and fewer than 15 percent sought waivers from the whole-grain rule. "Instead of building on that progress, the (Trump) Administration has chosen to jeopardize children's health in the name of deregulation," she said.
Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary W. Black applauded the guidelines for giving more local control and said they would help the state reach a goal of "having at least 20 percent of every meal in every Georgia public school comprised of Georgia products by the start of the 2020 school year."
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