The American Heart Association (AHA) is one of many entities concerned about the wellbeing of schoolchildren after the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) eased up on its nutrition standards for school lunches late last year.
The AHA called for a change to the USDA’s final interim policy—which opened the door for serving flavored, higher-fat milks and allowed exemptions for schools without immediate access to low-sodium products and whole grains—last week, following the organization’s publication of looser guidelines in November of 2017.
“This new rule is described as an effort to give the nation’s schools more ‘flexibility’ on what foods to serve our children,” AHA CEO Nancy Brown said in the statement. “But the truth is it would revoke school nutrition standards that will help kids attain better long-term health and academic success.”
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act first prompted the USDA to switch out hot dogs and pizza for steamed broccoli and low-fat salad dressing in 2010. Within two years, the organization had published its first set of healthy eating guidelines for school lunches.
The policy was a success with minor scrapes and bruises, but U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a statement that feedback from America’s students, school officials and food service professionals was prompting a change for the 2018-19 school year.
“It’s clear that many still face challenges incorporating some of the meal pattern requirements,” Perdue said. “Schools want to offer food that students actually want to eat. It doesn’t do any good to serve nutritious meals if they wind up in the trash can.”
But Katie Wilson, who worked as the Deputy Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services during the Obama administration, said in the AHA statement much of that waste could be avoided by appropriately timing lunch, allowing students enough time to eat and changing how fruits and vegetables are presented on a lunch plate.
“Every child deserves good nutrition in schools, just like they deserve a good education,” Wilson said.
Some studies, like one published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, have even proven the efficacy of healthier meals in reducing food waste, suggesting kids were consuming 16 percent more food at lunch if the meal met health standards. In addition, the AHA pointed out, just 14 percent of schools participating in the National School Lunch Program met its nutrition standards in 2010. In 2017, that number is 99 percent.
The USDA’s move “deserves an 'F,'" Brown said in the AHA statement, and could be detrimental to children's long-term health. One 2015 study estimated more than two million cases of childhood obesity could be prevented by 2025 if schools complied with government nutrition standards.
“We salute the efforts of America’s school food professionals,” Perdue said. “And we will continue to support them as they work to run successful school meals programs and feed our nation’s children.”
The USDA is accepting comments on its new interim rule through Jan. 29. Final changes to the document are expected to guide the 2019-20 school year.