On Jan. 17, Michelle Obama’s birthday, the Trump administration proposed rollbacks in nutrition standards in the school meal program. Under the proposal, legumes and potatoes will count as vegetables, fewer fruits will be served at breakfast and a la carte meals will allow students to select items high in fat.
The result will be increased access to foods like french fries, hamburgers and other calorie-dense foods that were not allowed under the improved nutrition standards of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which was championed by the former first lady and passed in 2010 with bipartisan support.
Here are the facts: A well-balanced diet high in fruits and vegetables and whole grains helps prevent diseases like obesity, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and many cancers. Children from low-income households are at risk for these diseases in part because of a lack of access to nutritious foods. They are also more likely to depend on schools to provide them with up to two meals plus snacks every day. Therefore, the school meal environment is extremely important for establishing nutritious dietary patterns early on — especially for kids who need it most. All Chicago Public Schools students are eligible for free meals, so it is essential that the food offered is in the best interest of our children’s health.
The law of 2010 ensured that, for the first time in decades, school meal standards were aligned with the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are developed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the USDA based on scientific research. Over the last five years, evidence has mounted in support of these changes, including increases in fruit and vegetable consumption. Meanwhile, there has been a lack of evidence that kids are throwing away more food than before. Shouldn’t the USDA’s school meals line up with its own guidelines? Relaxing school lunch nutritional standards sends a message that the USDA is setting guidelines that it doesn’t actually support.
To be fair, like any major policy change, the implementation of the new standards took some getting used to. The two main initial barriers were food service director challenges to meet the standards and children reportedly not liking the foods. Despite these early challenges, in 2014, the USDA reported that schools across the country were already over 90% compliant with the new regulations.
The School Nutrition Association has stated that it supports the rollbacks, citing decreased participation in the school meal program as a reason to loosen the rules. But a USDA fact sheet from 2014 does not indicate any reductions in school meal participation. So why try to roll back these changes after almost everyone is now on board?
Over the last several years, professional organizations of scientists have spoken out against rolling back the standards. In 2015 and again in 2018, the Society of Behavioral Medicine released two position statements opposed to relaxing school meal nutrition standards. The effect of nutrition on health, and initial evidence that the standards are beneficial, indicate that now is not the time to go backward.
Joanna Buscemi, Ph.D., is an obesity prevention researcher and clinical psychologist. She is an assistant professor at DePaul University and chair of the Health Policy Council for the Society of Behavioral Medicine.