By Sarah Reinhardt, Union of Concerned Scientists
It’s National School Breakfast Week, and the Trump administration is celebrating by rolling back science-based nutrition standards that are keeping kids healthy at school.
(Not that it takes a special occasion to pull the plug on policies that protect children’s health.)
This is the second time the administration has taken aim at the nutrition standards put in place by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the bipartisan landmark legislation that brought school meals in line with evidence-based dietary guidance for the first time. By many measures, the standards have been a success: kids are getting more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains on their lunch trays, and less added sugar, saturated fat, and sodium; schools with healthier meals are seeing higher participation in school breakfast and lunch programs; and food waste hasn’t increased in the process (although across the board, we still waste too much food just about anywhere we eat, prepare, or serve it). What’s more, 99 percent of schools were successfully meeting most of the new standards by 2016.
Yet here we are. If this particular proposal passes in its current form, it would deliver another blow to one of the most powerful tools at our disposal to promote health and prevent obesity among the nation’s youth—especially those who rely on school meals the most.
Introducing the new National School Potato Program
Okay, that’s not a thing, but it’s also not as ridiculous as it sounds.
Here’s why: the proposed rule would allow schools to swap out the required one cup of fruit at breakfast for one cup of any type of vegetables, and would provide schools more flexibility in choosing the types of vegetables that can be used to meet weekly minimum requirements at lunch. (In the school lunch program, vegetables are categorized as dark green, red/orange, beans and peas, starchy, or other, with minimum weekly requirements for each.) In theory, this means schools could choose to serve a starchy vegetable like a potato every day at breakfast and most days at lunch. By taking advantage of these flexibilities, in addition to a proposed change related to legumes, a student could be served as many as eight and a half cups of potatoes every single week.
For the record, I’m not suggesting we banish potatoes from lunchrooms. They have their place on our plates (even in fried form, on occasion). But the purpose of nutrition standards is to help schools develop menus that offer a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other healthy foods that meet kids’ nutritional needs, and eight and a half cups of tater tots a week just isn’t going to cut it.
Among other changes, the proposed rule would also allow more processed meat to be served at breakfast and more foods like pizza and hamburgers to be sold à la carte, exempt from nutrition standards. A prior rule that went into effect in early 2019 already halved whole grain requirements, allowed more varieties of flavored sugar-sweetened milk, and prevented sodium reduction targets from moving forward.
The good news? None of these rule changes are requirements; they’re just options that schools can exercise at their discretion. This means that some schools, particularly those with well-resourced food service departments, will see little change in their menus. It’s also likely that some of the proposed flexibilities, including certain administrative changes, could reduce waste and streamline food service without significantly impacting the nutritional quality of meals.
But the bad news is still pretty bad. When exercised to their fullest extent, as cost-saving measures or otherwise, these flexibilities could substantially diminish the healthfulness of school meals.
When school meals are less healthy, health equity takes a hit
When school meals are less healthy, it isn’t good for any of our kids. But, as with previous policies eroding public health protections, the effects could be drastically worse for children from low-income families and children of color.
As we wrote in our public comment to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the vast majority of children who eat breakfast and lunch at school are from low-income households: nearly 75 percent of lunches and 85 percent of breakfasts are served to these students at reduced or no cost. For most kids, these meals make up about half of the total calories they’ll eat in a day, and studies suggest this proportion is likely higher among kids who experience food insecurity at home—meaning school food plays a particularly important role in providing both calories and key nutrients.
The relationship between poverty and race in the United States, forged through a long history of racist policies and practices, also means that children of color are more likely to participate in school meal programs. And regardless of income level, children of color also face unique challenges to eating healthfully as a result of unhealthy food marketing, which is itself a contributor to poor diets and diet-related disease. Findings from the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity have shown that restaurants and food and beverage companies disproportionately market their least nutritious products, including fast food, candy, sugary drinks, and snacks, to Black and Hispanic youth.
Studies have shown that the nutrition standards implemented by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 were effective in reducing disparities in the healthfulness of foods served across different schools, including those that were predominantly white and those that weren’t. Rolling back science-based standards could put these critical measures of progress at risk, threatening to worsen existing health disparities and putting millions of children on a path to poorer health.
What happens next?
The USDA is accepting public comments on the proposed rule through March 23.
Submit your own comment here, and refer to our public comment guide for sample talking points and tips for writing an effective comment. You can find the full version of the comment we submitted on behalf of UCS below.
With any luck (and a lot of civic engagement), we’ll have something very different to celebrate the next time National School Breakfast Week rolls around.