USDA: Stop Playing Politics with Children's Health

USDA: Stop Playing Politics with Children's Health
(Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald via AP)
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Ten years ago this month, President Barack Obama signed into law the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), a monumental bill that improved access to healthy foods and beverages in school meals.

Unfortunately, even as the Trump administration has one foot out the door, it is trying to dismantle the nutrition standards in school meals, and quickly. Its latest proposal, which reinstates the 2018 rollbacks on sodium and whole grains, gave the public just 30 days to comment until today (Dec. 28). Many stakeholders, including those impacted by this rule, lacked the time needed to weigh in. In fact, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), as well as more than 60 organizations, and the Attorneys General from 11 states and DC, are calling for extending the comment period.

Called “one of the most important national obesity prevention policy achievements in recent decades,” by the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the impact of HHFKA is enormous. 30 million children rely on school meals, and two-thirds of program participants are low-income children. For many kids, school meals may be the only healthy meals they receive that day. In the pandemic and ensuing economic hardship, more children are expected to qualify for free or reduced-priced school meals. 

Our schools were making extraordinary progress towards healthier meals. Studies show meals were becoming healthier as a result of the Act — with less salt, and more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

Incoming Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has an opportunity to strengthen the school meals program. Since 2017, the Trump administration and outgoing Secretary Sonny Perdue have set their sights on systematically weakening the program. In 2018, CSPI sued USDA based on their rollback rule, which gutted the sodium and whole grains standards, and a federal court tossed out the rule this year for failing to inform the public of USDA’s intentions.

The latest proposal isn’t USDA’s only attempt to undermine healthy school meals. In January, USDA introduced another rule that would widen a loophole permitting more French fries to be served in place of carrots and reducing the amount of fruit that is served in some breakfasts.

Importantly, the timing is not just political but also misguided. The key dietary advice from the federal government, released every five years, is the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These evidence-based guidelines are developed by nutrition and public health experts and inform the nutrition standards for every federal program.

The 2020-2025 Guidelines are expected to be released at the end of this year or early next. They are fully expected to affirm the need for whole grains and for salt reduction in the diets of children — important areas that USDA proposes to weaken in school meals. 

USDA and supporters of the rollbacks cite baseless claims that kids throw away healthier food and participation in the program is down, but these claims are contradicted by USDA’s own study, which found the opposite is true in both respects. The study found there was no change between before and after the law in the amount of discarded food, and that those schools with healthier meals had a higher proportion of kids eating them.

USDA claims these rollbacks are needed to provide flexibility for schools during the pandemic. But schools across the country already have the flexibility to temporarily waive these requirements. The pandemic is no excuse to lock in unsafe levels of sodium and allow schools to offer fewer whole grains for years to come.

Now is not the time to weaken nutrition standards. One in six households with children lack sufficient food access, so ensuring students have access to nutritious meals from school is more important than ever. Stronger national nutrition standards also help reduce disparities in healthy food access.

And the health and cost saving benefits are clear: strong nutrition standards such as the ones in this modeling study could prevent up to two million cases of childhood obesity and save up to $792 million in healthcare costs over 10 years (prior to the rollbacks, the program already decreased the risk of childhood obesity among children in poverty by half over just five years).

Even if this rule is finalized, advocates will call on Congress and the incoming administration to undo the damage done by these rollbacks and to strengthen standards for sodium and added sugars, consistent with the Dietary Guidelines. 

But rather than rushing an 11th hour blow to the previous administration’s legacy, USDA should put down its political pen. The plain words of the law require USDA to set standards that are “consistent” with the Dietary Guidelines and its scientific recommendations. USDA should wait for the updated Guidelines as the law states and stop playing politics with children’s health. 

Meghan Maroney, MPH, is senior policy associate at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Find her on Twitter at @meghan_maroney.

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