Trump Ag Dept. wants to restore fatty foods to school cafeteria meals
Avery Morgan, left, 6, and Hadley Kelly, 6, both students at Lone Oak Elementary go through the lunch line in the school's cafeteria in Paducah, Ky., on July 10, 2019. Obama administration regulations that made school lunches healthier are being rolled back by the Trump Agriculture Department. | Ellen O'Nan / The Paducah Sun via AP

WASHINGTON—Donald Trump wants to make your kids fat.

And that should upset parents. It upsets pediatricians and groups that monitor—and worry about—food and nutrition for everyone, even as Trump’s plan increases the market for hamburger chains, pizza manufacturers, sugary soft-drink sellers, and similar special interests.

Using the excuse of giving school meal officials “more flexibility” to create their menus—as well as letting states save money on cafeteria inspections—Trump Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue unveiled rules on Jan. 17 to let schools put more fats, sugar, and salt in kids’ diets.

And what would be left out? How about healthy fruits and vegetables?

The Trump-Perdue measures would, in so many words, undercut the “healthy meals” law former First Lady Michelle Obama pushed through Congress in 2010. Trump’s rule is also in keeping with an increasingly obvious presidential priority: To wipe out or reverse every achievement and initiative of his Democratic predecessor’s administration.

Coincidentally, the Trump-Perdue food-in-schools proposed rule came on Michelle Obama’s birthday. But the real harm is to kids, as consumer groups point out.

Almost 30 million U.S. public school students, or just under 60%, qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, federal data shows. Of those, 15 million eat breakfast at school, too. Some 2.6 million kids get lunch at school in the summer, too. For those millions of kids from low-income or working-class families, school—not home—is their prime source of nutrition.

Thanks to that 2010 law, which needs congressional renewal, school’s also a healthier nutrition source than it was in prior years. That’s important because medical data show 21% of U.S. kids are clinically obese. And obese kids not only have more medical problems now but do worse in school, the American Academy of Pediatrics says.

The ills from obesity also carry over into adulthood, driving up family and national medical bills, the doctors say. Pro-nutrition and pro-children’s groups are upset, too.

“This proposed rule would weaken nutrition standards, eliminate the guarantee that all children will receive a balanced and healthy school meal regardless of school setting, and diminish the nutritional value of other foods sold in the cafeteria,” said Geraldine Henchy, nutrition policy director for the Food Research & Action Center.

School breakfasts and lunches should “serve a variety of fruits and vegetables,” just as federal nutrition guidelines recommend, she added.

But Trump would let schools cut the fruit in school breakfasts by 50%, to half a cup, and also would let the schools reduce the healthy red and yellow vegetables served at lunch. USDA’s own notice says it’s trashing a requirement for a minimum amount of healthy grains in each meal.

The flip side of the Trump-Perdue school lunch proposed rule: They’d let cafeterias serve—but the kids would have to buy a la carte—“more pizza, hamburgers, and other foods that are high in calories and saturated fat or sodium,” Henchy said.

USDA itself also admits one “flexibility” it wants to give the schools is to let them tailor their meals by age and grade. Another, according to its 41-page Federal Register notice, would let states inspect school lunch programs and cafeterias less often. That would save the states $11.4 million yearly, USDA said.

USDA also claimed there would be no disparate racial impact in the schools, ignoring that the majority of the nation’s public school students now are students of color.

The notice conveniently didn’t estimate how much more money institutional food suppliers and fast-food firms would make from having kids eat more cheaper-ingredient hamburgers, hot dogs, and pizzas and drink more sugary sodas. And a check of food lobby websites showed absolute silence on the issue.

“Children need healthy food to thrive, and healthy school lunches are particularly critical for low-income students, who are more likely to receive their only healthy meal of the day while at school,” the Children’s Defense Fund added.

This isn’t the first time Trump and Perdue, whose department manages and provides subsidies and sometimes surplus food for school meals, made those meals nutritionally worse. Henchy pointed out USDA pushed through a rule in December 2018 which “weakened whole grain, milk, and sodium standards.”

And the summer-school lunch kids not only would see the same changes, USDA said, but they could go off-campus to get lunch, too. Translation: McDonald’s.

The Trump-Perdue school food plan also drew criticism from pediatricians.

Speaking for the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Olenrajawu Falusi told a Senate committee hearing last April that the 2010 law gave kids “more servings of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains” in school meals than they had before “and less sodium.” There was also less food waste when the meals became healthier, Falusi said—contrary to what Perdue claimed in his January announcement.

“USDA has recently made changes” in school lunch food “standards that could jeopardize this progress,” Falusi warned.

“Healthy school meals help combat childhood obesity and improve overall health, particularly for low-income children. USDA’s own research, as well as other research, shows that school meals have improved children’s diet and health. Now is not the time for a rollback,” Henchy concluded.

The Federal Register deadline to object, or raise hell, about the Trump-Perdue regulatory scheme is March 23. The actual proposal comes from USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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