As a pediatrician in the city of Rochester, I’ve seen firsthand the consequences of children whose diets are filled with fat and sugar. 

Conditions that were once considered adult diseases, including type 2 diabetes and fatty liver disease, are now becoming more common among kids and teens. In Rochester, almost half of children – 48 percent – are considered overweight or obese.

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It’s not just my patients who are suffering. Today, one in three of America’s kids and teens are overweight or obese – nearly triple the rate in 1963.

And yet, despite this epidemic, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), recently announced school meal nutrition standards that weaken previous rules intended to improve the quality of food kids eat. The USDA claimed it wanted to offer states more ‘flexibility,’ but in reality, it eliminated the final sodium target, decreased the amount of whole grains and allowed for more refined grains and empty calories.

Despite the USDA’s rhetoric, this isn’t about giving schools more meal options. The new regulation threatens to reverse our progress towards ensuring America’s children receive healthy meals at school.

The nutrition standards put in place in 2012, empowered by the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), were a promising step to improving the health of our youth. For the first time in 30 years, there was an opportunity to make impactful reforms to school lunch and breakfast programs by strengthening the nutrition safety net for millions of children.

So why are we rolling back the progress we’ve made on children’s nutrition and compromising our children’s health?

According to Agriculture Secretary Sonny PerdueGeorge (Sonny) Ervin PerdueOn The Money: Judge upholds House subpoena for Trump financial records | Trump vows to appeal ruling by 'Obama-appointed judge' | Canada, Mexico lift retaliatory tariffs on US | IRS audit rate falls GOP senator calls for resolution of trade dispute: 'Farmers and ranchers are hurting' Trump touts farmers' access to Mexico, Canada: 'Please make sure that you are treated fairly' MORE, schools are challenged to meet the original standards. Yet, many schools have already met their commitment to serve healthier foods. Nearly 100 percent of the nation’s schools are complying with the school meal standards that were released in 2012. 

Children across the country are already filling their plates with more fruits and vegetables. A Harvard University study found that, under the updated original standards, kids are now eating 16 percent more vegetables and 23 more fruit at lunch. A separate study from researchers at Harvard found that the original will prevent more than 2 million cases of childhood obesity and will save up to $792 million in health-care related costs over ten years. This is particularly important for children who rely on free or reduced-cost lunch, which is often their only healthy meal of the day. In Rochester, that’s nearly 90 percent of our children and teens enrolled in our public schools.

The USDA needs to look more closely at how having access to healthy, nutritious food impacts America’s youth. According to a 2017 study from the Brookings Institute, children who are offered healthy lunch options scored better on end-of-year academic tests. This was particularly true for students who qualify for reduced-price or free school lunches who scored 40 percent better on end-of-year academic tests.

We cannot let rhetoric distract us from the goal of improving the health of our nation’s children. In the department’s statement, Secretary Perdue cited so-called “plate waste,” i.e. how much food children throw in the trash, as another reason for the finalized rule.

However, a study from the Harvard School of Public Health showed that new school meal standards did not result in increased food waste. And while plate waste is a problem in this country, it is not a problem created or exacerbated by the original nutrition standards. Schools can continue to address how to create meals that appeal to children’s taste buds, while at the same time having a measurable and powerful impact on what children are served in the lunch line.

By meeting the original nutrition standards, we are moving in the direction to create a healthier nation. The bottom line is that this ‘flexibility’ is a step in the wrong direction.

Stephen Cook, MD, MPH is Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Medicine and Center for Community Health at University of Rochester Medical Center. He is also a volunteer with the American Heart Association.