If it weren’t so tragic, we could all have a big laugh at the USDA’s latest announcement of how it plans to weaken the nutrition standards for school meals. Here’s how it starts:
Delivering on his promise to act on feedback from dietary professionals, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced two proposals today that will put local school and summer food service operators back in the driver’s seat of their programs, because they know their children best. Under the school meals proposed rule, school nutrition professionals have more flexibility to serve appetizing and healthy meals that appeal to their students’ preferences and subsequently reduce food waste…These improvements build on the 2018 reforms that preserve strong nutrition standards while providing schools the additional flexibilities they need to best serve America’s students [the words in red are my emphasis].
This is USDA doublespeak. My translation:
- Dietary professionals: USDA is not talking about me here. It is referring to the School Nutrition Association, which represents school food service workers, and receives nearly half its funding from food companies that sell products to schools.
- Driver’s seat: This is Trump’s USDA saying that it is not bound by anything accomplished by Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign.
- Flexibility: This means that schools can decide on their own to ignore nutrition standards and let kids eat all the junk food they want.
- Improvements: This refers to benefits for the companies that sell junk foods in schools.
- 2018 reforms: In USDA-speak, “reform” usually means rollback of rules or budget cuts; it never means real improvement.
I just can’t get my head around why there is so much political pressure to feed junk food to kids. Doesn’t everyone want kids to be healthy? Apparently not.
Bettina Siegel, author of Kids’ Food and blogger at The Lunch Tray, has her own analytical deconstruction of what this announcement means.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest interprets USDA’s proposals as an “assault on school meals.”
In an email, a reader who wishes to remain anonymous sent me some notes on the large body of research, some of it from the agency itself, countering USDA’s claims that the current nutrition standards are not working.
- USDA’s own research shows that meals are healthier, plate waste has not increased, and most schools are complying with nutrition standards.
- Healthy Eating Research shows that the nutritional quality of school meals has improved under the current rules.
- A study from the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity shows that low-income kids are eating better under the existing standards.
- Surveys from Bridging the Gap show that most kids like the healthier school lunches.
- A poll conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts, and American Heart Association shows that more than 70% of parents support healthier school nutrition standards, and more than 90% want fruits or vegetables served with every meal.
- A Harvard study stimates that the current nutrition standards will prevent more than 2 million cases of childhood obesity and save nearly $800 million in health care costs over 10 years.
In short, school meals are not broken and do not need fixing. This is about politics, in this case USDA’s pandering to food company interests at the expense of kids’ health.