If I ran the USDA, here are the changes I'd make to the school meal standards
In anticipation of the USDA’s latest industry-backed political antics, many health advocates, school nutrition professionals, and concerned parents have been mobilizing for months to preserve the integrity of the previous nutrition standards. Nonetheless, Sonny Perdue’s relaxed school nutrition rules go into effect this month, weakening a number of the standards laid out in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA).
The USDA touts these rule changes as a move that provides more “flexibility” regarding what foods and beverages schools can serve, thereby potentially increasing participation in school breakfast and lunch programs. As nutrition policy experts are predicting meal quality will take a hit if schools take advantage of the new rules, the USDA’s logic runs counter to its own analysis that schools with the healthiest meals also have significantly higher participation.
So, what changes were made, exactly? They include the following:
Flavored 1% milks can now be offered as an alternative to fat-free flavored milks. Both contain nearly two teaspoons of sugar per 8-ounce serving, but the 1% variety contains roughly 10% of a child’s saturated fat limit for the day—a rather consequential nutritional difference.
Whereas previously nearly all grain products had to be “whole grain-rich” (51% whole grain or more), now only half of these products must be whole grain-rich. Students in schools capitalizing on this change would consequently see the fiber and micronutrient content of their meals decrease from already sub-par levels.
The sodium reduction targets put in place by the original HHFKA have been significantly weakened. The timelines have been shifted back several years, and the final and deepest reduction in the third target has been eliminated altogether. In practice, this means high school meals can contain as much as 1,420 mg of sodium for the next four school years instead of being capped at 740 mg by 2022.
Additionally, the USDA passed temporary rule changes that, if implemented in schools, could reduce consumption of red-orange and dark-green vegetables, fruit, and legumes. Even more ludicrous, pasta made with vegetable flour will now count as a vegetable, and known disease-causing meats like nitrate-preserved sausage can be offered in place of whole grains at breakfast.
Of course, just because the USDA has made these changes doesn’t per se mean schools will follow them, and from anecdotes, I know several districts plan to improve the healthfulness of their programs in defiance of the rule changes.
Ultimately, how and whether the new rules affect student health are largely dependent on school nutrition professionals’ personal opinions and financial incentives, a fact that underscores how ironic the “flexibility” argument is. Yes, nutrition directors primarily focused on program participation might have an easier time boosting their numbers by dangling fries in front of pupils. But, in the bigger picture, the USDA is merely abdicating its responsibility of ensuring America’s children have access to the most health-promoting, nutrient-dense foods and is effectively passing that burden to local decision-makers whose motives lie elsewhere.
If the USDA actually cared about child nutrition professionals and children’s health, the traditionally industry-pandering agency would pony up with more funding and better guidance for school nutrition departments so that small-town and resource-strapped districts would never have struggled to implement the original rules of HHFKA in the first place. But for the USDA, the solution appears to be to pretend that the problems of hunger and diet-related disease among children don’t exist, leaving many school nutrition professionals with hands tied and toeing the food industry’s line.
Meanwhile, it’s no secret that school meals are more disliked than liked—just ask the average public school student or teacher. School food was corporatized decades before Perdue’s tenure at the USDA, and part of me wonders if his rule changes are more like throwing matches onto a fire than they are like setting one ablaze. We can argue that the rule change facilitating sales of à la carte items like pepperoni pizza will harm kids—but when the “healthy” option is a sad salad drowning in ranch dressing and served with cheese shreds and an egg, how meaningful is the difference?
If I were heading the USDA and wanted to make the rules genuinely more flexible while also promoting children’s health, I would do the following:
Reform the protein requirement and provide financial incentives and resources that will help schools offer more plant-based proteins and reduce consumption of ultra-processed and red meat products. If there’s one thing I hear over and over from directors, it’s that certain popular plant proteins are cost-prohibitive or haven’t been approved as a “meat alternate” by the USDA. Meat is not a standard against which we should base the value of a plant protein, so the entire “equivalency” model should be thrown out. Directors also say they need recipes or don’t know how to prepare certain plant proteins or vegetables, and the USDA—whose responsibility it is to promote healthy eating—needs to be involved in bridging that knowledge gap.
Strike the dairy milk requirement and the associated restrictions on marketing plant-based milks. Obviously the dairy industry would lose its mind, but the fact is that there is no research indicating that American children who drink milk have better health outcomes than those who don’t. On the contrary, there are many health concerns associated with dairy consumption in childhood. Thus, as with meat, dairy should not be a standard against which we judge the value of plant-derived milk substitutes.
Raise the reimbursement rates to $5 per meal and allow commodity dollars to be spent on a wider range of plant-based foods. Food prices pose a serious concern for school nutrition operations according to many working in the field. These common-sense changes would accommodate rising food costs as well as expand the range of fresh fruits and vegetables schools can purchase.
Incentivize scratch cooking. The privatization of school food never fulfilled its promise of providing better-quality meals at a lower cost, and even with self-operation, too many of the foods served are still just heat-and-serve industrial products prepared offsite by corner-cutting food service companies. Scratch cooking, on the other hand, has the potential to increase participation, improve meal quality, increase produce consumption, and decrease saturated fat and cholesterol intake. All students would benefit, especially those facing hunger and food insecurity. Local, state, and federal governments can play more of a role in implementing these changes by, for example, providing more funding for kitchen equipment upgrades needed in our schools, which will cost billions of dollars nationwide, or funding positions for actual chefs within school districts.
Incentivize longer lunch periods. When I was in high school, my fellow students and I were given barely 20 minutes to eat lunch, which is why I never bothered to wait in the long-serving lines and always brought my lunch instead. Research shows other students feel the same way. Moreover, kids with more time to eat waste less food. Thus, a combination of more time and healthier, higher-quality meals could increase participation and reduce waste—all without the need for rolling back nutrition standards. Imagine that!
The state of children's health is unquestionably dire in this country, as are the rates of child hunger. The USDA—which abets industries that push disease-linked foods into schools, corner stores, and groceries—needs to do more, not less, to meaningfully improve children’s diets through greater access to whole grains, fresh fruit, vegetables, and plant proteins.
Unfortunately, yet unsurprisingly, Perdue’s USDA has done a disservice to American children by cozying up to major corporations and implementing hands-off, do-nothing policies, then veiling its corporatist posture with the ridiculous notion that its rule roll-back “helps” the professionals at the frontlines of a health crisis the agency refuses to acknowledge.
Madeline is the Institutional Outreach and Support Manager at Balanced. She holds a B.S. and M.S. in Nutrition from the Univ. of Texas and Tufts, respectively. As a nutrition expert, she advocates for more plant-based dining options in critical institutions with the aim of building healthier food environments and fostering better public health outcomes. You can reach her here: firstname.lastname@example.org
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