Nutrition Policy Update Top Stories

School Lunch Guidelines Just Got a Makeover — But Were They Really Necessary?

This article examines the recent changes the Trump administration made to school lunch guidelines and the reasons why these changes were made. EJ provides the opposing side of the argument in this month’s issue.

School lunches have improved since the last time you had them. Perhaps not in taste, but in nutrient content and healthfulness thanks to the 2010 Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act. This act, and the nutritional standards it put in place, set stringent guidelines around the nutrient content of school lunches and ​increased the amounts​ of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains required to be included in lunchtime offerings.

The overall goal of these changes being to combat the obesity epidemic and ensure that nutritious foods are available for breakfast and lunch in schools. ​However, the Trump administration recently scaled down some of these standards, citing costliness, increased food waste, and the strain these parameters place on schools as evidence against the program’s success and effectiveness.

Rigid budget constraints, student participation, and nutrition have long been thorns in the side of school lunch programs, and these new rollbacks aim to make guidelines for nutrient content that are more achievable under tight budgets and (hopefully) more palatable to students.  However, those in support of the guidelines under the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act contest these claims, saying that the current administration’s arguments are specious, and that recent research points to the success, not failure, of the program.

The changes made by the Trump Administration grant schools more flexibility when it comes to the regulations regarding whole grains, sodium, and the fat content in milk. Prior to rollbacks, schools were required to provide whole grain rich options for at least 50% of their grain products​, meet a specific low-sodium target for each meal, and offer only fat-free milk at lunches. Now, schools that claim to be struggling with these guidelines are allowed an exemption from grain requirements, a less-strict sodium requirement and the option to offer 1% milk in addition to fat-free milk.

At a recent school visit, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, ​stated the reforms were incited by the continuous negative feedback they received from students, administrators, and food service workers regarding the requirements of the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act and the challenges they presented to school lunch programs across the nation. “If kids aren’t eating the food, and it’s ending up in the trash, they aren’t getting any nutrition – thus undermining the intent of the program,” he said.

According to USDA reports, the guidelines set by the act have added an extra $1.22 billion in school spending in 2015 alone, and ​ indicated that upwards of 60% of schools saw more vegetable waste after instating the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids federal regulations. States have also reported a decrease in student participation in school lunch programs making these rising costs even more devastating. Increasing costs and decreasing participation can make one wonder whether or not adhering to the previous regulations was worth the effort. And to Perdue’s point, what good is the improved nutrition quality of school meals if the kids aren’t eating them?

Marlene Schwartz, Director of the ​Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut, disagrees with the current administration’s changes, specifically contesting their argument that the requirements under the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act increased plate waste. That is to say, that the kids weren’t eating these new offerings, and more food than before was ending up in the trash. “I think what people don’t understand about plate waste is if kids are eating, let’s say 70% of the fruits and vegetables that they’re taking, that means 30% of those are getting thrown away,” Schwartz said, in a statement to CNN. In other words, of course there’s more vegetable waste, as more vegetables are being offered. Similarly, a ​recent study done by the University of Washington, Seattle, ​suggested that the program has, in fact, improved the nutritional content of the diets of children, and has not had an impact on school lunch participation.

Participation in the program, (another major point of contention), when viewed on a macro scale, remains relatively the same. When a closer look was taken at a few schools that ​chose to leave the National School Lunch Program​ due to the financial deficit they saw under compliance to federal guidelines under the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act, it was found that many of them lost significantly more money when running their own lunch programs. One school did save some money: a meager $1,600, which is not much compared to their costs of ​$151,385. These findings suggest that the investment in nutrition set forth by the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act is not the financial detriment that the Trump administration purports it to be.

While the school lunch program may not be perfect, the changes made under the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act greatly impacted the quality of lunches and thus the nutrition that children are receiving in schools. There is always room for improvement, but these rollbacks seem to just be stalling the progress, rather than helping the program in its student participation, adherence to budget and nutrient quality of meals. The research has shown that The Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act is effective in feeding the youth of America a nutritious diet. Taste, however, has yet to be addressed.


EJ Johnson is a first-year NICBC student who loves to read, talk, and eat, so she ended up in nutrition communications. She is working on earning her RD and in her spare time loves to read fiction and travel, although lately less travel due to the whole “broke grad student” thing.

 

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The Friedman Sprout is a monthly student run newspaper that aims to serve the student population at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, prospective students, and alumni. Our mission is to report on newsworthy information that affects the Friedman community including nutrition research, food policy, internship and volunteer opportunities, as well as school events. Our editorial slant is that of sustainability in food and nutrition.

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