Earlier today, the Trump administration announced a series of proposals that would further gut the nutritional standards governing school breakfasts and lunches—dealing yet another significant blow to the health of America’s school children.
But to read the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) press release about its proposed rule—a masterwork of doublespeak—you’d never know what’s really going on. So here’s my translation and analysis (in blue) of some key excerpts:
“The school meals proposed rule would continue to ensure children receive wholesome, tasty meals
- Allowing local schools to offer more vegetable variet
ies, while keeping plenty of veggies in each meal;
- Allowing local schools to offer more vegetable variet
“Plenty of veggies?” The real question is, “Which veggies?”
Potatoes at breakfast
Schools were already allowed to swap out fruit at breakfast for nutritious vegetables. But thanks to a temporary rule change quietly released this past spring (and reportedly lobbied for by potato growers), schools have since been allowed to also swap out the fruit for white potatoes—a food today’s kids already over-consume relative to other vegetables.
So while today’s proposed rule doesn’t codify this change, it does seek public comment as to whether the agency should now make this “flexiblity” (see what I mean?) permanent.
But given that the USDA doesn’t care a whit about public sentiment (96 percent of public comments opposed the last round of school nutrition roll-backs), it might be time to start investing in frozen hash browns. [Cue popping champagne corks at the potato lobby’s HQ.]
Fewer red/orange veggies
Meanwhile, at lunch, the proposed rule would also allow schools to serve fewer red and orange vegetables than previously required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA).
Also noteworthy: under the new rule, if a school serves pasta made with vegetable flour, the pasta counts as a vegetable—”even if the pasta is not served with another recognizable vegetable.”
Is anyone else reminded of the infamous “pizza is a vegetable” debacle of 2011? That’s when Senator Amy Klobuchar (whose state, Minnesota, is home to a major frozen pizza manufacturer) successfully prevented the closing of a loophole that counted the tomato paste in school pizza as a vegetable.
- Making it easier for schools to offer school lunch entrees for a la carte purchase, thereby reducing food waste;
Food waste? Nope. This is all about pizza sales and other ways of boosting districts’ a la carte revenue.
Under the HHFKA, districts currently can sell a school meal entrée a la carte, even if it doesn’t meet Smart Snacks guidelines, provided that the entrèe was served on the reimbursable meal line that same day or the day before. This provision was meant to keep schools from regularly selling foods like pizza and burgers, without the item being part of a balanced meal that also included milk, fruit, and vegetables.
But as I warned readers in a February, 2019 blog post, the School Nutrition Association has been lobbying hard to change this rule—and it can now claim at least partial victory. Under the proposal announced today, districts will be able to sell these entreés for three days—the day they appear on the lunch menu and for two days afterward.
But in addition to glutting kids with more pizza and burgers, the USDA’s commentary on the proposed rule indicates that the agency is also poised to expand this exemption to all foods offered at lunch—including unhealthy sides like French fries and desserts. It’s now seeking public comment on this question and is likely to forge ahead—regardless of any public outcry.
- Supporting a more customized school breakfast environment by letti
ng schools adjust fruit servings . . . ultimately encoura ging breakfast options outside the cafeteria so students can start their day with a healthy breakfast . . .
“Adjusting” fruit servings? That means “cutting fruit servings in half.” Specifically, for breakfasts served outside the cafeteria, schools would now be allowed to serve children 1/2 a cup of fruit instead of the HHFKA’s mandated one cup.
It’s worth mentioning, however, that when kids go through the cafeteria line for breakfast in an “offer versus serve” school, they’re already allowed to take a half-cup of fruit from the offered one cup of fruit. So this change would only make the two serving systems consistent.
But for the millions of kids who do get their breakfast in the classroom or through some other “grab-n-go” method, they’ll now likely see half as much fruit as before. And as the Washington Post notes, the calorie minimum at breakfast hasn’t changed, so those remaining calories could be made up with sweetened breakfast foods like granola bars or cereal.
Not all of the USDA’s proposed nutrition-related changes are terrible, however. Here are two high notes:
Schools are currently required to make water available to all kids for free during mealtimes, and the rule change would allow schools to meet that requirement with naturally flavored, unsweetened (i.e., fruit infused) water, too. Nothing wrong with that, and it could encourage kids to drink more water. The rule would also allow schools to sell fruit-flavored carbonated water (unsweetened) to high schoolers a la carte. (Far better to make a la carte revenue that way, than from selling kids pizza and fries.)
More protein at breakfast
The new rule would make it easier for districts to serve protein items (aka “meat/meat alternates”) at breakfast without first having to serve a minimum number of grain foods. Many school breakfasts are total carb/sugar-fests, as I’ve previously reported, so this change strikes me as good news.
Overall, though, the Center for Science in the Public Interest is exactly right to refer to the USDA’s move as “aiming a flamethrower” at the HHFKA and children’s health. That the agency chose to release the news on Michelle Obama’s birthday is just further salt in the wound.*
*Maybe the release date was just a coincidence, but given how politicized school food has become—such that Trump’s USDA continues to deny the resounding and proven success of the Obama-backed HHFKA—one does have to wonder.
- “A blueprint for how to raise healthy eaters in a fast-food culture”—New York Times
- “One of the Best Books of 2019 (So Far)” — Real Simple
- “Everyone who has children should read Kid Food. And everyone who doesn’t should read it, too.” — Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation.
Look for my new book, Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly Processed World. For more information, visit bettinasiegel.com.