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Scientists are trying to stop the USDA from rolling back healthy school lunch requirements

The USDA killed two rules that ensured healthier school lunches for all American schoolchildren.

By Lisa Needham - August 06, 2019
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue

The Trump administration is committed to making school lunches less healthy, but if the scientists at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) prevail, it will be blocked from doing so.

In April, CSPI filed a lawsuit against Sonny Perdue and the Department of Agriculture over the USDA’s implementation of a rule that weakened school nutrition standards. Now, they’ve moved for summary judgment, a procedure that would hopefully result in a federal court in Maryland ruling on the matter before the start of the school year.

The lawsuit is over two nutritional standards that were part of an overall effort to make school lunches healthier. The rules imposed requirements that schools serve more whole-grain foods and decrease the amount of sodium in school lunches.

Serving 30 million schoolchildren healthier food would seem like a relatively uncontroversial goal. However, healthy food standards have long vexed conservatives, perhaps because former First Lady Michelle Obama was instrumental in creating anti-obesity initiatives that called for more nutritious school lunch options. After Trump was elected, the House Freedom Caucus called on Trump to kill the healthy food standards within the first 100 days of his administration.

It took the administration a bit longer.

They weren’t able to kill the Obama-era rules until December 2018, when the USDA issued a new rule rolling back the standards. With the issuance of the new regulations, school lunches will see a spike in sodium and a decrease in whole grains. This is despite the fact that the school lunch standards were based on the overall Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Those guidelines say people should cut back on sodium and encouraged increased consumption of whole-grain foods.

The lawsuit points out that the administration didn’t base its rollback on anything scientific. Instead, they referred to things like “community preferences” and “menu planning and procurement challenges.”

“Community preferences,” the lawsuit notes, refers to “anecdotal concerns about student taste.” In other words, kids didn’t always like food made with whole grains or less salt. That isn’t a reason to change a law.

“Menu planning and procurement challenges” refers to the possibility that some school districts may have trouble sourcing whole grains or complying with the standards in some other way.

There’s no evidence that school districts had difficulty meeting the new guidelines. According to the federal government’s own data, 99.8% of all schools had met the sodium targets and approximately 85% were meeting the 100% whole grain-rich target.

Under Trump, the USDA is committed to actions that significantly decrease the health of children. Besides this move, the USDA has also proposed gutting food stamps, taking away free lunches from 500,000 schoolchildren from low-income households.

If CSPI prevails, the current rules will be overturned and the previous — much healthier — rules would be reinstated. It shouldn’t take a lawsuit to ensure schoolchildren have healthy lunch options, but these days it does.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.

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