Finally, some relief on school lunch nutrition rules


Fairmeadow Elementary School second grade student Jonathan Cheng, center, looks at fruits and vegetables during a school lunch program in Palo Alto, Calif., Thursday, Dec. 2, 2010.

To the great delight of many students and school lunch administrators, the Agriculture Department announced the relaxation of some strict school lunch nutrition rules.

Citing “operational challenges” in meeting sodium, whole grain and milk requirements for the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue signed a proclamation on Monday that will offer schools greater flexibility and discretion in their lunch offerings. Specifically, Perdue promised to continue allowing states to grant waivers to schools struggling to satisfy whole-grain requirements, while the agency draws up new regulations “to provide schools with additional options.” Schools will also be able to offer flavored, 1 percent fat milk, and sodium limits, which were scheduled to be reduced in the next school year — and again in 2022 — will be held at current levels. The proclamation did not address other restrictions on calories, fat and sugar.

“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,” Perdue said at an event in Leesburg, Va., to commemorate School Nutrition Employee Week. “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.”

Food waste has certainly been a problem, as students have rejected the taste of the new meals. The nutrition rules, which are detailed in thousands of pages of regulations and were borne out of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, have prompted a significant backlash from students, many of whom posted pictures of meager and unappetizing foods on Twitter with the sarcastic hash tag #ThanksMichelleObama, in reference to the former first lady’s role as champion of the nutrition mandates.

Many stopped participating in the program altogether. In fact, despite steady growth during the prior decade, the program saw a decline of 1.4 million students (4.5 percent) during the first three years under the new nutrition guidelines, a September 2015 U.S. Government Accountability Office report noted. Students were even driven to establishing black markets for salt, pepper and sugar in order to flavor bland meals.

This meant less revenue for school districts, even as the standards raised food and labor costs by $1.2 billion in fiscal year 2015 alone, leading to many cuts in cafeteria staff, the School Nutrition Association and School Superintendents Association lamented. “[M]eeting these mandates has harmed the financial health of nearly 70 percent of school meal programs surveyed, with fewer than 3 percent reporting a financial benefit,” a 2015 SNA survey found.

It is encouraging that the USDA is revisiting and relaxing school lunch nutrition regulations, but perhaps this is a good time to re-evaluate whether providing subsidized lunches to schoolchildren should be the province of the federal government, particularly in light of President Donald Trump’s recent executive order to “protect and preserve state and local control” of K-12 schools. Like many other government programs, the school lunch program has seen an inexorable expansion in size and scope over the years, leading to unintended consequences including massive waste.