Chocolate milk is coming back on the school lunch menu.
So are white bread and saltier food.
Several paragraphs tucked into a massive 1,665-page government spending bill released Monday would relax Obama-era nutrition standards for school lunches.
On page 101 of the bill, due for congressional votes later this week, the secretary of agriculture is directed to allow states to grant schools exemptions so they can serve flavored low-fat milk and bread products that are not rich in whole grains.
The bill, which keeps the federal government funded through Sept. 30, also would push back deadlines for schools to meet lower sodium levels. It would bar federal funds from paying the salaries of any government officials to implement the nutrition standards.
The language would apply only to the 2017-18 school year. But it mirrors changes to school lunch standards the Trump administration announced Monday as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue signaled his intent to kick off a more extensive re-evaluation of the rules put in place under President Barack Obama.
He said the change was based on “years of feedback from students, schools and food service experts about the challenges they are facing” from the rules. He signed a proclamation that his department would move to ease standards for whole grains, sodium and milk during a visit to Catoctin Elementary School in Leesburg, Virginia. He said school food rules had cost districts and states an extra $1.22 billion in fiscal year 2015.
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.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue
Finalized in 2012, healthier standards for school lunches were a signature Obama administration achievement. Then-first-lady Michelle Obama promoted them as part of her “Let’s Move” campaign against childhood obesity.
The rules restricted schools from serving salty, sugary and higher-fat products and required them to serve more fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthier items. Fat-free milk could be flavored, but not low-fat milk.
Some school districts and cafeteria workers complained the rules are too costly and restrictive. Without more flexibility, they warned, they’d keep throwing away whole grains, fruits and vegetables that kids refuse to eat.
“All the way through this, the yardstick on the school lunch program was whether or not the kids were eating,” said Kansas Republican Sen. Pat Roberts after joining Perdue and a group of fifth-graders Monday for lunch at the school in Virginia.
Providing more flexibility to school districts to serve food that children will eat has been a top priority for Roberts, who oversees the lunch program as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Over the past few years, the senator has toured schools in Kansas to sample meals and talk to students and administrators.
“We had kids sneaking into the school cafeterias with salt shakers and ketchup,” Roberts said.
The senator said his staff had worked with Perdue and the congressional committees in charge of agriculture appropriations to ensure that the language loosening school lunch rules made it into the 2017 spending bill.
This is just the beginning, Roberts said.
“Personally, I think we can do a lot more to make school lunches more palatable,” he said.
Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House domestic policy council under Obama, said the standards had been starting to have a positive impact as trend lines in obesity among young children began to level out.
Muñoz said the Obama administration had built a lot of flexibility into the rules to ensure school districts would be able to comply, and that 99 percent of them had done so.
“By and large, these are regulations that are being implemented successfully,” she said.
The language in the omnibus, she said, is a legislative attempt to dismantle rules that can be hard to undo once they’re in place.
“This looks like something that’s being done for the sake of industry at the expense of kids,” Muñoz said.
“It’s much harder to revoke a rule, and it’s especially hard to revoke a rule when you’re fighting the science here,” she added. “It just opens your rule-making up to litigation, because you have to prove there’s a rational basis. . . . It’s going to be interesting what the rationale is going to be for adding more salt to foods or moving away from whole grains to more refined grains.”