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Trump Administration Further Relaxes School Lunch Rules

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture released its final school rule on school meals Thursday, relaxing nutrition standards championed by former first lady Michelle Obama more than most advocates had expected.

The new directive, which finalizes a plan announced in May 2017, will ease requirements related to flavored milk, whole grains, and sodium in meals served through the National School Lunch and breakfast programs.

Opponents of the original strengthened nutrition standards said they were difficult for schools to follow. There were limited products that met whole grain standards, and students discarded healthier meals rather than eating them, they said.

"If kids are not eating what is being served, they are not benefiting, and food is being wasted," said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement announcing the relaxed rule. "We all have the same goals in mind—the health and development of our young people. USDA trusts our local operators to serve healthy meals that meet local preferences and build bright futures with good nutrition."

Proponents of the nutrition standards set under the Obama administration said they are necessary to combat rising rates of child obesity and to guard against health concerns like heart disease, especially for students from low-income families who rely more heavily on school meals.

"The Trump administration is putting politics before children's health in ways worse than were expected," the Center for Science in the Public Interest wrote in response to Purdue's final rule, which will be published in the federal register this month.

Under the final rule:

  • Schools can offer low-fat milk in flavors like strawberry and chocolate. The nutrition regulations previously said they could only offer flavored skim milk.
  • Half of grain products must be whole-grain rich. The regulations previously said all grain products must meet that standard, and the Trump administration had allowed states to provide exemptions to schools that said they struggled to find compliant products.
  • Schools will have more time to meet a schedule of increasingly restrictive sodium requirements set under the original nutrition standards. In May, Perdue gave schools until 2020 to meet "target one" requirements, which are the least restrictive. The final rule extends that deadline to 2023. And it gives schools until 2024 to meet "target two" standards and eliminates the third level, the most restrictive, altogether.

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