On Wednesday, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue addressed the School Nutrition Association at the organization’s annual national conference in Atlanta. Here’s the summary of his address from Politico‘s indispensable Morning Agriculture tip sheet:
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on Wednesday celebrated and defended the Trump administration’s recent controversial move to relax some of the school-nutrition standards championed by former first lady Michelle Obama. Perdue was in friendly territory as he spoke to the crowd of some 7,000 professionals at the School Nutrition Association’s annual conference in Atlanta. The crowd cheered, applauded and laughed as Perdue told them that he believed they know much more about their communities and kids than Washington does. . . .
Perdue was adamant that the administration’s new policy isn’t a step backward (health advocates and Michelle Obama disagree). “Some have said in the press, as you’ve read, that we’re ‘rolling back’, [that] these rules ‘roll back progress.’ I don’t agree with that,” Perdue said. “We’re freezing things in place to help us evaluate what the palatability, what the acceptance of these changes have been and to reduce the burdens on schools to get you back to feeding kids and not doing paperwork so much anymore.”
As TLT readers know, I generally agree that Perdue’s recent “relaxation” of some school nutrition standards wasn’t the major roll-back it was hyped up to be in conservative news outlets, which tended to portray the development as a humiliating defeat for former First Lady Michelle Obama. (See: “Yes, School Meal Standards Just Got Weaker, But Not As Much As You Think” and “We Don’t Need Scare Tactics to Defend Healthy School Food.”)
That said, the Morning Ag also noted that:
Perdue said he wants SNA to help USDA make school nutrition standards better. The secretary said he recently invited Lynn Harvey, SNA’s new president, and the organization’s incoming board to come to Washington and give the department “direct, specific advice on how we can make the best rules going forward possible.”
This is where I start to get worried. . . .
Let’s remember that current school meal nutrition standards were established not by the Obama administration but by the non-partisan Institute of Medicine – and they were hailed at the time as the “gold standard for evidence-based health analysis.” But because we unfortunately require school meal programs to run as self-operating businesses, and because we don’t provide them with nearly enough funding, school food directors are naturally incentivized to serve kids more highly processed, less nutritious foods to keep their programs in the black.
As I wrote in 2014 in “School Food Professionals vs. Kids: How Did It Come to This?”:
Just think about it: if you were trying to balance a very tight budget in an operation which lives or dies based on how well students accept your food, and if many (sometimes, the vast majority) of those students came from homes in which nutritionally balanced, home cooked meals are far from the norm, and if the food industry was bombarding those kids with almost $2 billion a year in advertising promoting junk food and fast food, and if you had no money of your own for nutrition education to even begin to counter those messages, and if some of those kids also had the option of going off campus to a 7-11 or grabbing a donut and chips from a PTA fundraising table set up down the hall, wouldn’t you, too, be at least a tiny bit tempted to ramp up the white flour pasta, pizza and fries and ditch the tasteless, low-sodium green beans? . . . .
[In other words,] the health of school children and the financial burdens placed on school food service directors do not properly align.
So while I’m all for Secretary Perdue getting the input of school food professionals on school meal standards, they certainly should not be the only voices in his ear. It’s imperative that health advocates also have a role in these discussions – yet it’s not clear at this point whether they’ll even be invited to the table.
I’ll keep you posted here.
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