Does making America’s school lunches great again mean keeping the sodium, fat, and sugar in children’s meals?

This is the question as the newly confirmed agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue, only days on the job, announced a rule Monday, May 1, that eliminates certain nutrition standards in place. The rule sought to stall one of former first lady Michelle Obama’s accomplishments, which was to impose more rigorous nutrition standards for school breakfast and lunch meals.

Relaxing School Meal Guidelines

Schools, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture, want more control over the sodium, whole grains, and milk they are currently serving children.

“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,” said Perdue, who made the announcement while visiting Catoctin Elementary School in Leesburg, Virginia in celebration of School Nutrition Employee Week.

Kids not consuming their meals means food ending up in the trash and them not getting any nutrition at all, Perdue added. Meals cannot be nutritious without being consumed, he told reporters after a meal of chicken nuggets and salad shared with fifth grade students, calling for a balance between sodium and whole grain content and “palatability.”

For now, the reforms are not viewed as drastic ones, as they will only allow schools to offer children 1 percent chocolate and strawberry milk again, instead of the usual nonfat flavored milk choices. Sodium levels, too, will be frozen instead of being further reduced in school lunches.

Attack On Obama’s Nutritional Legacy?

Some experts cannot help but view the recent move as an attack on nutritional changes to the school lunch program executed during the Obama administration. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, for instance, provides 30 million children in the program access to more vegetables, fruits, and whole grains instead of the usual fare expected of school meals.

And on April 28, the Food and Drug Administration expressed an intent to rewrite long-delayed menu labeling guidelines as a portion of the Affordable Care Act.

Republicans from the House Appropriations Committee also made a number of nutrition-related riders to the appropriations bill this week, including one targeting voluntary industry reductions in sodium. For conservatives, such formerly imposed restrictions indicate major federal overreach.

Lobbying group School Nutrition Association, on the other hand, welcomed the recent developments on school meals, noting schools’ need for increased time and flexibility in order to meet more stringent nutrition rules.

“We don't want kids wasting their meals by throwing them away. Some of our schools are actually using that food waste as compost. That shouldn't be happening,” said the group’s CEO Patricia Montague, commending Perdue’s new rule.

A number of cafeteria managers complained about the Obama-era requirements, saying they were seeing more food wastage and shrinking lunch revenues. A small number of schools also opted out of the program and forfeited their federal funds to set their own menus.

The 97 percent of schools already complying with the controversial standards were qualified for an added 6 cents for every meal in government reimbursements.

Obesity remains an urgent matter in the United States, feared to contribute to climbing rates of diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular issues among children and teens. The problem is attributed to poor diets and sedentary lifestyles.

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