Rolling back school nutrition standards defies science and public health

The USDA’s proposed rollback of school nutrition standards would harm the health of the youngest generation of Americans, Glickman and Veneman write. (iStock)
The USDA’s proposed rollback of school nutrition standards would harm the health of the youngest generation of Americans, Glickman and Veneman write. (iStock)
Posted March 18, 2020 at 6:41pm

For the second time in less than two years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has proposed to roll back school nutrition standards. The changes would likely result in students having more french fries instead of less frequently consumed vegetables like carrots, bell peppers and cucumbers at lunch, less fruit and more sausages and hash browns at breakfast, and fewer fiber-rich whole grains. Students buying a la carte items instead of a full meal could purchase items like pizza, burgers and french fries that do not meet requirements for calories, saturated fat, sugar or sodium even more days of the week. Framed as providing “flexibilities” and “simplifying meal service,” in reality, USDA’s proposed rule would harm the health of the youngest generation of Americans.

USDA is now prioritizing the interests of school nutrition directors and some food companies at the expense of kids’ health. As we wrote previously, during the George W. Bush administration, Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman commissioned the Institute of Medicine (now the Health and Medicine Division at the National Academies of Health, Sciences, and Engineering) to review the evidence and provide recommendations for updating the school meal standards to align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans current at the time. The IOM recommended that nutrition standards increase the variety and amounts of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, while limiting saturated fat, sodium and calories. During the Obama Administration, USDA updated the meal patterns for the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program and a la carte snacks and drinks to be consistent with IOM’s evidence-based recommendations.

Those updates to the school meal requirements have been successful in improving kids’ health. Overall, USDA’s research found that school meals became more than 40 percent healthier, and intake of whole grains, fruits, greens and beans increased, while that of refined grains, empty calories and sodium decreased. While food waste continues to be a concern, it was not significantly impacted by the changes to the meal patterns. Importantly, as of 2016, the most recent data reported, more than 99 percent of school districts were certified by USDA as meeting these nutrition standards. 

USDA claims that its proposed rule is intended to provide flexibilities that make it easier for school districts to meet these standards and reduce food waste among certain food groups. But there is no evidence that these problems have worsened since the updated nutrition standards took effect more than five years ago. Why roll back nutrition standards when 99 percent of school districts are providing healthier meals to children? Compounding the problem, the rule builds on additional “flexibilities,” which would scale back whole grain, sodium and milk standards in the school meal programs announced in December 2018. 

Flying in the face of science, USDA’s proposed rollbacks undermine many of the same changes recommended by the IOM and the current Dietary Guidelines, such as an increase in the amount and variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains for meals and snacks. Rates of childhood obesity have only increased since the IOM released its recommendations in 2009, making their implementation even more crucial. Currently, 18.5 percent of children and teens — 13.7 million people — have obesity, putting them at risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, Type 2 diabetes and prediabetes, breathing problems, anxiety and depression, and bullying, among other issues. We know food consumption at younger ages often continue through adulthood. Children who have obesity now are more likely to become adults with obesity, contributing to the declines in life expectancy our country has experienced in recent years. With 29.5 million lunches being provided to students on an average school day, school meals make up a significant portion of the day’s food for many students, particularly those from lower-income households.  

In the interest of kids’ health, USDA should look for ways to enhance rather than roll back nutrition standards. Increased training and technical assistance, and recommendations for local policy changes, such as tweaks to lunch period start time and duration, can help struggling school districts manage challenges like food waste and student acceptability. This would also lessen the need for “flexibilities” in the nutrition standards. 

Even amid the coronavirus pandemic as schools close across the country, many districts are still providing healthy meals during restricted hours for children in need. When possible, children should always receive healthy options. As our country considers ways to improve children’s academic achievement, our nation’s military readiness and economic competitiveness, it is important that school meal requirements move forward rather than backward to align with the growing evidence on diet and health. The future of our children and our country depend on it.

Dan Glickman is a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and served as Agriculture secretary for President Bill Clinton. Ann M. Veneman served as Agriculture secretary for President George W. Bush. They both co-chair the BPC’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Task Force.