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Trump Team Plans to Relax School Lunch Rules. Opponents Warn of 'Junk Food Loophole'

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture Friday announced plans to further relax heightened school meal nutrition standards created by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which was championed by former first lady Michelle Obama.

The proposed changes won praise from some school nutrition workers, who said they would give them more flexiblity to manage tight budgets and the logistics of feeding students. But children's health advocacy groups said the new rules may serve to erode progress in tackling issues like childhood obesity. They warned that one of the changes, which would allow entrees to be served à la carte, could lead to students eating more foods like pizza and burgers.

Here's what the proposed changes would do:

  • Provide more flexibility in compliance with a rule that requires a variety of specific types of vegetables to be served with school lunches.
  • Allow anything that can be served as a lunch entree on the main line to be sold on the à la carte line, even if it doesn't meet the nutrition restrictions for a single à la carte item. School nutrition workers said such rules, which limit calories and sugar in individual à la carte purchases, prohibited them from selling leftover meal items, like pizza, which they had used to balance tight cafeteria budgets. But child nutrition groups have called the proposal a "junk food loophole" that will allow schools to serve unhealthy food for profit.
  • Lift a requirement that schools must offer a certain amount of grains in a breakfast before they can include meat in the meal.
  • Reduce the amount of fruit required in school breakfasts served outside of the cafeteria, such as those provided through grab-and-go programs.
  • Allow states to extend the time between standard reviews of schools' meal programs, which are completed to ensure they are in compliance with federal rules.

"Schools and school districts continue to tell us that there is still too much food waste and that more common-sense flexibility is needed to provide students nutritious and appetizing meals. We listened, and now we're getting to work," U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a statement announcing the proposal.

The School Nutrition Association, an industry group that opposed some of the Obama-era regulations, praised Perdue for listening to its members concerns. The Trump administration previously relaxed rules related to milk, sodium, and whole grains. Some of the nutrition requirements "contributed to reduced lunch participation, higher costs and food waste," the SNA said in a statement.

But groups concerned about child obesity and children's health said the proposal represents a step back.

The changes "could jeopardize kids' health by potentially reducing the variety of vegetables available on lunch lines," said a statement from Food Corps, an organization that advocates for child nutrition and school gardens. 

And the Center for Science in the Public Interest said the Trump administration seems intent on "sabotaging" the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, expressing particular concern about the à la carte rule change.

"The proposed rule would allow anything that might be allowable as an entrée on any one school day to be served as an a la carte item every single day," the organization said in a statement. "In practice, if finalized, this would create a huge loophole in school nutrition guidelines, paving the way for children to choose pizza, burgers, French fries, and other foods high in calories, saturated fat or sodium in place of balanced school meals every day."

Joe Urban, director of food and nutrition services for Greenville County Schools in South Carolina, said it will take time for local officials to read the new rules and fully understand the changes.

"People who are doing a really, really good job serving high quality nutritious food to kids right now will continue to do so regardless of any changes in the rules," he said.

The proposed rules will be published in the Federal Register Jan. 23, and will be open for public comment for 60 days.

Photo: U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue eats lunch in a school cafeteria. --USDA

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