Trump puts healthy school meals at risk

Trump puts healthy school meals at risk
© Getty

A signature achievement of the last administration was a much-needed update to school nutrition standards. The updated standards were developed after years of public input from a wide range of interests, including schools, nutrition and public health experts, and food suppliers.

One of the key improvements — reducing salt in school meals to safer levels — is still being phased in.

ADVERTISEMENT
So it was disheartening when Secretary of Agriculture Sonny PerdueGeorge (Sonny) Ervin PerdueZinke blames 'environmental terrorist groups' for scale of California wildfires Overnight Energy: Trump Cabinet officials head west | Zinke says California fires are not 'a debate about climate change' | Perry tours North Dakota coal mine | EPA chief meets industry leaders in Iowa to discuss ethanol mandate Sen. Sanders blasts Zinke: Wildfires 'have everything to do with climate change' MORE announced last May — in a press release titled Ag Secretary Perdue Moves to Make School Meals Great Again — that the USDA “will provide greater flexibility in nutrition requirements for school meal programs.” In fact, the USDA’s proposals would weaken school nutrition.

 

The current standards ensure that schools, through the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, are providing healthier school meals to low-income children — meals with less salt; more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables; and no trans fat.

In addition, the standards remove most soda and junk food from schools. For salt, the plan was for schools to gradually decrease the amount to safer levels over time, and that plan is already underway.

The Trump administration’s proposal would delay the next phase of salt reductions by three years and could get rid of reductions slated to happen after that.

At the current levels, an elementary school lunch has on average 1,230 milligrams of sodium, about two-thirds a day’s worth for a child. A high school lunch has, on average, 1,420 mg, about half a day’s worth. This is just too much, and we can and should do better by kids.

As a doctor, I have seen alarming evidence of the toll on health that too much salt can have, including for children. Nine out of ten children eat too much salt. High salt intake is linked to high blood pressure, even in kids, which can lead to early evidence of heart disease, and heart attacks and stroke later in life.

In fact, the prevalence of high blood pressure is increasing in American children. Approximately one in six children aged 8 to 17 have blood pressure that is too high.

The planned reductions in the amount of salt in school meals are based on expert nutrition recommendations, including from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization, and American Heart Association.

The 2015 Guidelines recommended that children consume no more than 1,900 to 2,300 mg of sodium per day. Unfortunately, on average, kids consume considerably more than that.

Lowering salt consumption can have a tremendous impact on public health and save billions of dollars. Studies have shown that reducing salt intake can lower blood pressure, control high blood pressure, and prevent heart disease. In addition, lowering salt consumption, and thereby lowering blood pressure, can reduce medical costs.

In 2012, high blood pressure cost the United States an estimated $51.2 billion in direct and indirect costs. The U.S. lags behind other countries in bringing salt in foods down to safe levels;more than 50 countries have already adopted salt-reduction targets for certain foods.

Current proposals to weaken school nutrition undermine efforts that would improve the health of our children and our nation, saving money and preventing needless health damage in tens of millions of schoolchildren. Rather than derailing current standards, the Trump administration should support and extend the progress that schools have made.

Dr. Lawrence J. Appel is director of the Welch Center for Prevention, Epidemiology and Clinical Research and Professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins.