Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue took steps Monday to roll back healthy school lunch standards promoted by former first lady Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson Obama'Car guy' Biden puts his spin on the presidency Poll: Harris, Michelle Obama lead for 2024 if Biden doesn't run Son gives emotional tribute to Colin Powell at service MORE in one of his first regulatory acts.
In an interim final rule, aimed at giving schools more flexibility, Perdue and his department are postponing further sodium reductions for at least three years and allowing schools to serve non-whole grain rich products occasionally as well as 1 percent flavored milk.
The rule allows states to exempt schools in the 2017-2018 school year from having to replace all their grains with whole-grain rich products if they are having a hard time meeting the standard.
USDA said it will take “all necessary regulatory actions to implement a long-term solution.”
“This announcement is the result of years of feedback from students, schools, and food service experts about the challenges they are facing in meeting the final regulations for school meals,” Perdue said in a statement.
“If kids aren't eating the food, and it’s ending up in the trash, they aren't getting any nutrition – thus undermining the intent of the program.”
Sodium levels in school lunches now must average less than 1,230 milligrams in elementary schools; 1,360 mg in middle schools; and 1,420 mg in high school.
Before Perdue’s rule, schools were expected to reduce sodium even further to average less than 935 milligrams in elementary schools, 1035 milligrams in middle school lunches and 1,080 in high school lunches by the week by July 1, 2017.
Further reductions were set to take effect by July 1, 2022.
Perdue made the announcement Monday with Sen. Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsBob Dole: heroic, prickly and effective McConnell gets GOP wake-up call Bob Dole, Pat Roberts endorse Kansas AG Derek Schmidt for governor MORE (R-Kan.), who has long been working to ease the standards.
“We worked really hard the last two years to provide flexibility, but after unanimously passing a bipartisan bill out of Committee, our effort stalled,” he said in a statement.
“The policies that Secretary Perdue has declared here today will provide the flexibility to ensure that schools are able to serve nutritious meals that children will actually eat. Because that is really what these programs are about: serving meals to hungry children so that they can learn and grow.”
The School Nutrition Association, which represents nutrition directors at schools across the country, was quick to praise Perdue. The group has been lobbying Congress for more flexibility in what the have called “overly prescriptive regulations.”
SNA claims less kids are buying lunch because they no longer like the food and schools are being forced to spend more money on lunches that largely end up in trash.
The former standards required all grains, including croutons and the breading on chicken patties, to be whole grain rich.
“School Nutrition Association is appreciative of Secretary Perdue's support of school meal programs in providing flexibility to prepare and serve healthy meals that are appealing to students,” the group’s CEO Patricia Montague said in a statement.
“School nutrition professionals are committed to the students they serve and will continue working with USDA and the Secretary to strengthen and protect school meal programs.”
Health groups, meanwhile, claim the standards are working and that 99 percent of schools are in compliance.
“Improving children’s health should be a top priority for the USDA, and serving more nutritious foods in schools is a clear-cut way to accomplish this goal,” the American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown said in a statement Friday ahead of USDA’s action.