For many children, breakfast and lunch at school are the only stable, regular, healthy meals of their day. As schools have made efforts to provide organic, fresh food, the Trump administration is weakening Obama era regulations on school lunch nutrition.
Free and Reduced School Meals
The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) serves 30 million students each day. 20 million of those lunches are free to children who’s family meet eligibility requirements. 1
To qualify for free meals for the 2018-2019 school year, a family of four’s income must be less than $2720 a month. To qualify for reduced cost meals, the monthly income for the same family size must be under $3,870. 2
The number of children eligible for the free and reduced lunch program is steadily rising. 48,941,267 children qualified for the program in 2010-2011.
Percentage of US students on Free and Reduced Lunch:
- 1969: 15.1%
- 1979: 43.6%
- 1989: 47.2%
- 1999: 57.6%
- 2009: 62.6%
- 2018: 74.3% 3
The state with the highest percentage of children qualified for free and reduced meals is Mississippi. 4
The Trump administration announced it was easing Obama era rules that increased nutritional standards for the NSLP. Although local schools are given autonomy to make “decisions about the specific foods to serve and the methods of preparation”, meals must meet federal requirements. 5
2012 Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs
In 2012, First Lady Michelle Obama led the first overhaul to the school lunch program in 15 years, including an increase to reimbursement rates. The new guidelines called for more whole grains and produce, as well as less sodium and fat. The new standards were criticized by many as not going far enough. Pizza remained a “vegetable”.
Specific requirements include:
- Offer fruits and vegetables as two separate meal components;
- Offer fruit daily at breakfast and lunch;
- Offer vegetables daily at lunch, including specific vegetable subgroups weekly (dark green, orange, legumes, and other as defined in the 2005 Dietary Guidelines) and a limited quantity of starchy vegetables throughout the week;
- Offer whole grains: half of the grains would be whole grain-rich upon implementation of the rule and all grains would be whole-grain rich two years
- Offer a daily meat/meat alternate at breakfast;
- Offer fluid milk that is fat-free (unflavored and flavored) and low-fat (unflavored only);
- Offer meals that meet specific calorie
rangesfor each age/grade group;
- Reduce the sodium content of meals gradually over a 10-year period through two intermediate sodium targets at two and four years post implementation;
- Prepare meals using food products or ingredients that contain zero grams of trans fat per serving;
- Require students to select a fruit or a vegetable as part of the reimbursable meal;
- Use a single food-based menu planning approach; and
- Use narrower age/grade groups for menu planning. 6
Trump Weakens School Lunch Nutritional Requirements
The Trump administration wants to relax these rules. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said the reasoning is because schools are finding the regulations challenging, and children are not eating healthier foods.“If kids are not eating what is being served, they are not benefiting, and
The weakened standards will allow more sodium in meals, decrease whole grains allowing for more refined grains, as well as allow flavored, sweetened milk, like chocolate, back on lunch trays.
The rule will give administrators more leeway in serving up white
breads, biscuits, tortillas andwhite pastasby requiring that only half of the grains served in school meals each week be whole-grain rich. Currentlyschools are only allowed to serve whole grain-rich breadsand pastas unless they get a waiver. In addition, the administration is putting the brakes on the targets developed during the Obama administration to cut back on sodium. 8
The Amerian Heart Association immediately released a statement condemning the action:
USDA’s decision to weaken the standards – despite overwhelming opposition – threatens to reverse our progress toward ensuring our nation’s children receive healthy meals at school that help them attain better long-term health and academic success. If the concern truly was to provide those few schools experiencing challenges with more ‘flexibility’, the more responsible approach would have been for USDA to provide more technical assistance to these institutions so they could offer healthier food choices.
When it comes to our children’s health, there should be no ‘flexibility.’ Failing to meet the science-based sodium standards for school meals originally adopted by USDA will put kids’ health in jeopardy.9
“School Lunch is Critical to Student Health”
Almost 75% of school children in the United States rely on free or reduced meals. Nutritional standards are key to ensuring children receive healthy meals while attending school, especially for those living in
The Food Research and Action Center identifies four benefits to the school lunch program:
1. Based on national data, economists estimate that the receipt of a free or reduced-price school lunch reduces obesity rates by at least 17 percent.
2. Among a sample of low-income children entering kindergarten, receiving a free or reduced-price school lunch reduces the probability of household food insecurity at school entry, whereas paying full price for school lunch is associated with a higher probability of household food insecurity.
.Childrenparticipating in school meals are less likely to have nutrient inadequacies and are more likely to consume fruit, vegetables, and milk at breakfast and lunch.
.Childrenexperiencing hunger are more likely to be hyperactive, absent, and tardy, in addition to having behavioral and attention problems more often than other children. 11
Furthermore, research does not support Secretary Perdue’s claims that children are not eating the healthier school lunches. In fact, one study conducted in a low-income school district in Connecticut found students were eating more of their school lunches and concluded, “Overall, the revised meal standards and policies appear to have significantly lowered plate waste in school cafeterias.” 12
Trump himself is known to eat fast food and not exercise. 13 He clearly does not believe in the benefits of nutritional eating (nor climate change).
The only organization supporting the Trump administration rollbacks is the School Nutrition Association. One would assume this non-profit would have children’s best interest as a priority, yet they receive over half of their budget from big processed food industry business like giants PepsiCo, General Mills, and Domino’s. 14
Lobbying and industry interests garner favors in this administration over the health of our most vulnerable children.