CSPI and Healthy School Food Maryland sue to stop USDA’s weakening of nutrition standards for school meals

CSPI and Healthy School Food Maryland Sue to Stop USDA’s Weakening of Nutrition Standards for School Meals

Trump administration rollback of sodium and whole grain school nutrition standards violates law and puts children’s health at risk

The Trump administration violated the law when it rolled back key nutrition standards for school meals, according to a complaint filed today in federal court in Maryland. The lawsuit contends that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) violated the Administrative Procedure Act and the National School Lunch Act by issuing a final rule that substantially weakens nutrition standards concerning the amount of whole grains and sodium served in school meals. The weakened standards put approximately 30 million children, including approximately 22 million low-income children, at greater risk of health issues associated with diets high in sodium and low in whole grains.

The plaintiffs, the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Rockville, MD-based Healthy School Food Maryland, represented by Democracy Forward, are asking the court to set aside the rule lowering the nutrition standards for school meals, and to require the agency to follow Congress’s requirement to set school nutrition standards based on nutrition science as reflected in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. A coalition of states, led by New York, filed a challenge to the same rule today in the Southern District of New York.

“American children are fed too much sodium—raising their risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke,” said CSPI Vice President for Nutrition Margo G. Wootan. “Kids are also getting too much white refined flour and not enough whole grains. After working for over a decade to improve school nutrition and seeing the tremendous progress that schools are making, it’s heartbreaking to see the Trump administration reverse course. The Trump rollbacks are recklessly putting kids’ health in jeopardy.”

To align school meals with science-based nutrition standards and improve the health of school-age children, in 2012, USDA issued a rule requiring schools participating in the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs to phase in three sodium-reduction targets and require that all grain-based foods be whole-grain-rich, which means that at least half of the grains must be whole. The rule, issued at the direction of Congress in the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) of 2010, also increased the amount of fruits and vegetables on kids’ lunch trays and set limits on saturated and trans fats—changes required to meet basic nutrition standards in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans with which the programs are required by statute to comply.

"​The Trump rollbacks are recklessly putting kids’ health in jeopardy."

Because, as reported by USDA, school-age children consume one-third to one-half of their daily calories during the school day, the Harvard University T. H. Chan School of Public Health described the nutrition standards required by the HHFKA as “one of the most important national obesity prevention policy achievements in recent decades,” estimating that the improvements would prevent more than two million cases of childhood obesity and save up to $792 million in health-care costs over ten years.

In December 2018, the Trump administration published a new rule delaying the compliance date for the second sodium-reduction target and eliminating the third target altogether. That rule also slashed the whole-grain-rich standard, requiring that only half of the grain-based foods served in school meals be whole-grain-rich. The 2018 final rule followed a proclamation by Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, signed within his first week in office, to “make school meals great again.”

“The effects of the rollbacks will reverberate throughout all levels of policymaking, down to the local schools in our area,” said Fania Yangarber, Executive Director of Healthy School Food Maryland. “Our organization has been equipping parents with tools based on nutrition and wellness standards that were undergirded by the solid foundation of the hard-won victories of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act; the rollbacks amount to a fracturing of that foundation, which all our work is based on, and will hurt our kids.”

“The effects of the rollbacks will reverberate throughout all levels of policymaking, down to the local schools in our area.”

According to the lawsuit, USDA also violated the Administrative Procedure Act by failing to provide a reasoned explanation for rolling back the standards and for taking actions about which it had not sought feedback. Nor did USDA adequately respond to the more than 85,000 public comments, a vast majority of which favored keeping the original 2012 standards for sodium (96%) and whole grains (97%). Yet USDA’s own data shows that virtually all schools (99%) participating in the National School Lunch Program are making progress toward serving healthier meals and are meeting the sodium and whole grain requirements.

“The law requires USDA to make sure school kids are served healthy meals by basing nutrition standards on science, so ignoring science and putting kids’ health at risk like this is not just wrong, it’s illegal,” said Democracy Forward Executive Director Anne Harkavy.

The complaint was filed in United States District Court for the District of Maryland in Greenbelt, MD.

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Democracy Forward is a nonprofit legal organization that scrutinizes Executive Branch activity across policy areas, represents clients in litigation to challenge unlawful actions, and educates the public when the White House or federal agencies break the law.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest is America’s food and health watchdog.

Healthy School Food Maryland is a coalition of over 5,600 members across the state of Maryland, including parents taking a leadership role at their children’s school, promoting delicious, fresh, whole and nutrient-rich foods in schools.