Seven big school districts say they won’t relax school lunch standards

Seven of the largest school districts in the nation, spanning the country from New York City to Los Angeles, say they won’t relax school lunch standards despite Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s offer of flexibility in school meals. At the start of the week, Perdue said the USDA will delay the requirements for less salt and more whole grains in the federally subsidized school lunch program.

“We, as large districts, have been able to meet and continue to support the nutrition standards set by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA),” said the Urban School Food Alliance, formed in 2012 to give schools greater bargaining leverage with suppliers. “We recognize that smaller school food programs with limited resources struggle to meet certain aspects of the act. The flexibility outlined by the secretary of agriculture will be a great benefit to most of the nation’s school food programs.”

Alliance members have a combined enrollment of 3.1 million students and spend more than $590 million a year on food and food supplies. Members are public schools in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami-Dade County, Dallas, Orange County (Orlando, Fla.), and Broward County (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.). In 2014, before Broward County joined, the alliance launched a procurement initiative for antibiotic-free chicken. The group also purchases compostable lunch trays.

Perdue ate lunch with fifth graders in Leesburg, Va., before announcing that the USDA will delay, until 2020, the requirement for lower sodium levels in school food and will allow states to give waivers to schools “experiencing hardship in serving 100 percent of grain products as whole-grain rich” in 2017–18. Also in time for the school year that begins in late summer, the USDA will write a regulation allowing the sale of flavored 1 percent milk.

The School Nutrition Association welcomed Perdue’s announcement as an antidote to “overly prescriptive regulations” flowing from the 2010 child nutrition law backed by then-First Lady Michelle Obama. The association, representing school food directors, says the law led to a drop in school lunch participation, higher food costs, and more discarded food. The law required schools to serve more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy while reducing fat, salt, and sugar in meals.

Patricia Montague, the association’s chief executive, said the USDA’s steps will give schools “flexibility to prepare and serve meals that are appealing to students.”

The government funding bill approved by Congress this week contained provisions similar to those announced by Perdue. Lawmakers have repeatedly delayed implementing the salt and whole grain requirements.

Senate Agriculture chairman Pat Roberts, who supports the administration’s steps, said school food rules, such as a call for more fresh fruit, can be onerous for rural districts. “By the time the truck gets to Fowler, the fruit is spoiled,” he said, referring to a town of 560 people in southwestern Kansas, some 160 miles west of Wichita.

The Urban School Food Alliance said it would “continue to champion food programs that include antibiotic-free initiatives and the elimination of unwholesome ingredients in the food supply. We will persist in helping the environment by employing sound environmental practices and by increasing the use of compostable items in school food service.”

School food expert Bettina Elias Siegel said in her blog, The Lunch Tray, “The Perdue announcement does move school meals in the wrong direction, but most of the very significant gains made by the HHFKA remain intact. We still have common sense calorie limits for school meals, for example, as well as a ban on trans fats and a requirement that kids get a greater variety of vegetables each week. … That said, there may be future Trump administration efforts to further weaken HHFKA advances.”