The Trump administration finalized a rollback of Obama-era school lunch regulations last week, a move that will allow schools more flexibility on whole grains, sodium, and flavored milk. Regulations put in place by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2010 imposed strict guidelines on school cafeterias, including mandating 100 percent whole grains, severely restricting sodium, and only allowing flavored milk if it was fat-free. The restrictions unleashed a nationwide food fight over what constitutes a healthy school lunch.
“This announcement is the result of years of feedback from students, schools, and food service experts about the challenges they are facing in meeting the final regulations for school meals,” said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in May 2017, when he first announced the rollback. “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.”
Many school districts reported they simply weren’t able to comply with the mandate because suppliers were unable to provide affordable and compliant options, and students weren’t eating the food they could serve. A major complaint revolved around regional staples that didn’t meet whole grain standards, like grits and tortillas. Some schools went so far as to opt out of federal funding entirely in order to escape the punishing constraints. Students themselves joined the fray, posting #ThanksMichelleObama on social media with photos of unappetizing cafeteria offerings. The former first lady had made the school lunch regulations a part of her Let's Move! initiative against childhood obesity.
But not everyone applauded last week’s news. The American Heart Association recommended that schools “stay the course” and remain committed to the stricter standards.
That’s a decision school districts are now allowed to make on their own.
“I’ve got 14 grandchildren, and there is no way that I would propose something if I didn’t think it was good, healthful, and the right thing to do,” Perdue said. “And here’s the thing about local control: It means that this new flexibility will give schools and states the option of doing what we’re laying out here today. These are not mandates on schools.” —Laura Edghill