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School Food Politics: Policy Regression

apples at lunch

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently announced new regulations for school meals to allow ‘regulatory flexibility’ in nutrition requirements in order to make school meals both ‘healthful and appealing’ to students. Sonny Perdue, the newly appointed U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, reported the change was a move to "make school lunches great again." Perdue signed a proclamation on May 1, 2017 that will reinstate local control of school meal guidelines on whole grains, sodium and milk. This change will take effect during the upcoming 2017-2018 school year and will affect school breakfasts and lunches served to more than 32 million students every day.

The USDA states the change was a result of palatability complaints, declining participation in the national school program and rising food costs due to the current regulations. The existing nutrition regulations were part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 enacted by former First Lady Michelle Obama as part of her Let’s Move Campaign to combat the rising childhood obesity epidemic. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of childhood obesity in the U.S. has more than tripled since the 1970s. Today, one in every five children is obese.

What does this change mean for school meals? Under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, schools are required to reduce the amount of calories, fat and sodium in their meals and increase offerings of whole grains, fruits and vegetables and nonfat milk. Beginning next school year, under the new proclamation, states can exempt schools from the current whole grain requirement. It will also delay the mandate to further reduce the amount of sodium served in school meals until 2020. Schools will also have the option to serve one-percent flavored milk instead of nonfat flavored milk.

What the media isn’t reporting? This new ‘regulatory flexibility’ may be the start of a larger change in direction. The proclamation signed by the USDA is only temporary. Perdue reported the USDA wants time to study the impact of the stricter guidelines of the current school meal nutrition regulations and will decide whether to move forward with them or reverse them.

Why is this concerning? Removing nutrient-dense foods such as whole grains are detrimental to the health of our children. Whole grains offer added nutritional fiber that aids in maintaining stable blood glucose levels and keeps children fuller, longer. A diet rich in whole grains has also been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity. Without access to these nutrient-dense foods in school, children may not get this essential nutrition.

In addition, delaying the sodium reduction in school meals could result in serious health consequences for our kids. Sodium levels in school meals must now average less than 1,230 milligrams in elementary schools, 1,360 mg in middle schools and 1,420 mg in high schools.

Before Perdue’s rule, schools were expected to further reduce sodium to average less than 935 mg in elementary schools, 1,035 mg in middle schools and 1,080 mg in high schools by July 2017. The American Heart Association supported the sodium reduction and revealed that children who eat high levels of sodium are 35 percent more likely to have elevated blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease or stroke.

In a public statement American Heart Association CEO, Nancy Brown, reported her disappointment with the new USDA regulations, stating if the current standards of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act are left in place “they have the potential to decrease childhood obesity cases by more than two million by 2025.”

While the health impact of this new rule is currently unknown, it’s clear having children eat fewer whole grains and consume higher levels of sodium is not heart healthy. Serving one-percent flavored milk, which adds extra calories, fat and added sugar, to school meals is also not ideal.

Bottom Line: We strongly hope the USDA and Congress do not turn our children’s food into politics. Our children’s health takes priority over politics and special interests.

Written by: Lisha Andrew, Wellness Workdays Dietetic Intern

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