Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 30 million children relied on school meals. For many students, school meals may be the only nutritious meals they receive that day. Thanks to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) and the resulting school nutrition standards, schools were required to provide children with healthier school meals, snacks, and beverages. These improvements were an amazing success story. The Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health concluded that the school meal requirements resulting from the Heathy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was “one of the most important national obesity prevention policy achievements in recent decades.” They estimated that these improvements would prevent more than two million cases of childhood obesity and save up to $792 million in health-care related costs over ten years.
Despite this tremendous progress, the Trump Administration reversed course and weakened school nutrition standards.
In 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a rule significantly weakening school nutrition standards by locking in levels of salt in school meals that are higher than those recommended in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and allowing schools to serve fewer whole grains and more refined grains. Improved school nutrition is critical: one out of three children and adolescents aged 2 to 19 years is overweight or obese. Children consume one-third to one-half of their daily calories during the school day. Unfortunately, nine out of ten children consume too much sodium, increasing their risk of hypertension, heart disease, and stroke.
The Trump Administration’s changes to school meal nutrition standards put children’s health at risk—resulting in children consuming, on average, an extra six cups of salt over the seven-year delay. The weakened school nutrition standards also do not align with nutrition science and are counter to sound public health policy.
A federal district court found that the rule violated the Administrative Procedure Act and tossed out the rule.
To fix their procedural defect, USDA proposed a nearly identical rule in November 2020, providing only a 30-day notice public comment period in an attempt to rush the rule before the change in Administration.
USDA’s ruleis deeply flawed because it does not ensure that school meals are consistent with sound dietary advice. The rule:
- delayed the next phase of sodium reduction (Target 2) by 7 years (from School Year 2017-2018 to School Year 2024-2025) and eliminated altogether the final sodium reduction goal (Target 3); and
- cut in half the amount of whole grains in foods (instead of 100% whole grain-rich foods, schools only need 50 percent).
The school meal changes are unnecessary and endanger progress on improving child health:
- Virtually all schools (99 percent) participating in the National School Lunch Program were making progress toward serving healthier meals with less sodium; more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables; and no trans fat.
- More than 50 prominent health and child welfare organizations and 50 prominent scientists and academics opposed the Trump administration rollbacks to school nutrition:
- Op-ed by Margo Wootan, CSPI’s former Vice President for Nutrition; President, MXG Strategies
- Op-ed by Dr. Lawrence Appel, director of the Welch Center for Prevention, Epidemiology and Clinical Research and Professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University
- Op-ed by former Secretaries of Agriculture Dan Glickman and Ann Veneman
The seven-year delay in the second phase of sodium reduction and elimination of the third sodium reduction will harm children’s health:
- A nonpartisan expert scientific panel, the 2019 National Academy of Medicine’s dietary reference intake report, just concluded that current levels of sodium in the diet pose a risk of diet-related disease for children, and supported further lowering of sodium levels based on the science.
- The seven-year delay of the second set of sodium reduction targets and elimination of Target 3 will lock in unsafe levels of sodium for children.
- Many schools, food service companies, and others in industry are working toward or already providing healthy and appealing meals and products with less sodium. USDA should address remaining challenges through training and technical assistance.
Weakening the whole-grains standard was unnecessary and harmful for child health:
- Children, on average, consume too few whole grains and too many refined grains.
- Eating more whole grains is associated with reduced risk of heart disease and provides more nutrients. Whole grains are also a healthful source of fiber.
- USDA has conceded that 85 percent of schools were meeting the previous targets without requesting whole-grain waivers and are providing children with appealing 100 percent whole-grain options.
- More schools, food service companies, and others in industry have reformulated existing products and developed new products to meet the whole grain standards. USDA should address remaining challenges through training and technical assistance.
There is overwhelming public and parental support for healthy school meals:
- Sixty percent of Americans opposed the administration’s proposal for rolling back school nutrition.
- Nine out of ten Americans support the HHFKA school nutrition standards. From this same poll, nearly 70 percent believe school meals are excellent or good, compared to just 26 percent in 2010, before schools implemented the updated school nutrition standards.
- According to an August 2014 survey by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a majority of school leaders nationwide reported that students liked the new lunches.
- Many statewide polls have demonstrated overwhelming support for the updated school nutrition standards. For instance, in Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, and North Carolina, more than 70 percent of parents support the standards. In addition, support for healthier school meals is bipartisan: a majority of registered voters with children in public schools are supportive of healthier school meals.
Counter to claims, consumption of healthy school foods has increased; plate waste has remained the same or decreased:
- In issuing the recent rollbacks, the Administration cited concerns over students not eating school meals and throwing them away. Yet, at the time of the rollback, students were eating more healthy food and studies showed that food waste had either remained the same or decreased since the HHFKA school nutrition standards were adopted.
- A May 2014 Harvard School of Public Health study shows that children are now eating 16 percent more vegetables and 23 percent more fruit at lunch.
- A study released in March 2015 by the University of Connecticut's Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity found that students are eating more nutritious foods and discarding less of their lunches under the healthier standards. Children ate 13 percent more of their entrees, nearly 20 percent more vegetables, and chose 12 percent more fruit in 2014 compared to 2012, which means that students threw away less food than in the past.
- Food waste can be a problem in schools; however, this problem existed long before the updated nutrition standards were put into place. There are a number of strategies to reduce food waste in schools, such as taste testing menu items; giving students more time to eat; scheduling recess before lunch; adjusting the time of the lunch period; and involving students in meal planning.
Participation in the school lunch program is increasing:
- Contrary to claims by USDA, changes in participation in the school lunch program were not the result of changes to the nutrition standards. In fact, data shows that participation was increasing at the time of the rollback.
- Participation among students receiving free meals has increased (from 13 million in 2000 to 15.4 million children in 2008 to 20 million children in 2017) and remains the largest percentage of participants (about two-thirds of participating students in 2017).
- Overall participation remains high with more than 30 million students participating in 2017. The Community Eligibility Program has helped increase the number of students participating in school meals.
- Many factors impact school meal participation, including sales of competitive foods, increased charges for paid meals, time to eat, long lunch lines, and school closures and consolidations.
Healthy school foods can reduce health disparities and stigma that impedes health equity:
- Improvements in school foods help reduce health disparities and stigma for low-income children.
- According to research by Bridging the Gap, prior to the HHFKA school nutrition standards, students in more affluent and larger schools were more likely to have access to healthier foods than those in lower-income and smaller schools.
- Another study found that improved school nutrition standards are associated with a decrease in obesity among low-income students.
- The Community Eligibility Program helps decrease stigma by providing a free meal for all students in an eligible school, so low-income kids are not singled out.
History of the updated school nutrition standards
CSPI developed a case study, published in Nutrition Today, that provides insights into policy strategy and advocacy best practices that resulted in passage of the HHFKA: https://cspinet.org/schoolfoodcasestudy.
- Read the case study
- One-page summary of the case study
- View the webinar recording (registration required)
Additional Resources on the Importance of Sodium Limits for Health
- The 2019 National Academy of Medicine’s dietary reference intake report reinforced the evidence for the need for sodium reduction, including recommendations that lower the maximum amount for safe levels of sodium intake by children (see summary).
- 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans
- Children and Excess Sodium Intake
- Fact Sheet on Sodium
- Making Sense of the Science on Sodium
- Lowering Sodium in School Foods (helpful fact sheet showing the original timeline for the sodium-reduction targets by the American Heart Association)
- Lower Sodium Products for School Meals
Additional Resources on the Importance of Whole Grains for Health
- DGA on Whole Grains
- USDA 10 Tips Nutrition Education Series: Make Half Your Grains Whole
- Whole Grains, Refined Grains, and Dietary Fiber (American Heart Association)
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