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The Trump Administration Wants to Make School Lunches Not So Great Again

Lizzy Francis

On January 17, the Trump administration announced another plan to loosen school lunch requirements in the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The former legislative initiative was pushed by the former First Lady, whose birthday just happened to fall on the 17th.

This is the second time the administration has attempted to roll back, or slow down, an aggressive plan that would provide healthier meals for kids in schools. The administration’s first attempt in 2018 slowed down the timeline in which schools would have to lower the sodium content in their breakfasts and lunches. It also rolled back stringent whole grain requirements and allowed schools to provide one percent flavored milk, which had previously been banned. That plan was met with some consternation from activists and nutrition experts — but it didn’t go nearly as far as the plans announced a month ago.

The new announcement gave schools even more leeway, and for dubious reasons. Citing rampant food waste and strenuous conditions placed on cafeteria workers to make healthier school lunch requirements work, the Trump administration now wants to roll back 2010 regulations that require fruit with every school breakfast and a mandated “color” variety of vegetables that included both typical leafy green vegetables as well as vegetables like potatoes. 

Should the rule pass, schools would be able to serve vegetables during breakfast — leading some school advocates to fear that tater tots or french fries, for example, would once again be served instead of an apple or other such fruit — and that meat and meat alternatives can be served during lunch as well. Calorie count requirements would also be relaxed. While providing more beans and easing on the calories is not necessarily anything negative or nefarious, many of the new rules, and the justifications behind them, are suspect. 

The rule would also roll back previous requirements that stipulated schools must provide a variety of vegetables. For context, the National School Lunch Program requires a diversity of ‘colors’ like red and yellow vegetables that it won’t require anymore, allowing more pale vegetables (think: potatoes) to be served. The new rollback will allow schools to provide lunch items for an ‘a la carte’ purchase

The a la carte provision, in particular, seems problematic. While it could mean, in practice, that kids could buy extra vegetables if they wanted to, it will also likely mean that unhealthy options like pizza and burgers could be available alongside the daily lunch offering. It would, theoretically, allow kids to skip right over the steamed carrots or the oranges and grab a slice. 

The Trump Administration’s claim that these new rules will help food waste are dubious at best. When the new rollback was announced last month, Juliana Cohen, a nutrition professor at Harvard University’s School of Public Health argued to the New York Times that food waste was a problem before the new 2010 rules were enacted. But perhaps the most frustrating reason the regulations were rolled back was based on how they decided to do so. After meeting with a focus group of eight school administrators and cafeteria staff, the Trump administration decided that the requirements on vegetables, fruits and more were too stringent — and gave them up. The reality is that any major school reform in any category is difficult to pull off — especially without proper funding and institutional support. And the schools they spoke to were in largely Southern and rural environments, traditionally schools that have less public funding than in other parts of the country. 

These are schools that, traditionally, receive far less school funding than states in the Northeast or on the West Coast. So it stands to reason that other schools across the country might not struggle as much to enact these changes to the school lunch menu. Is a school in an affluent suburb struggling to implement these reforms compared to a rural school? If one is struggling and the other isn’t, how can struggling schools be supported? Any efficient or meaningful reform should take into account a diversity of schools, whether  by location, funding, or diversity of student body, and create a myriad of focus groups that reflect the diversity of American Schools. 

It’s also worth noting that giving up on increasing fruit and vegetable intake and variety seems fairly cynical. When it comes to school nutrition, it’s hard to say that rolling back a commitment to fresh fruit, whole grains, and vegetables makes sense in a country where 22 million low-income children participate in the NSLP. That’s 96,000 schools, or 95 percent of schools across the country. In America, 13-million children are obese, including almost 20 percent of low-income children. The entire country would benefit from stronger standards for breakfast and lunch. Unfortunately, that won’t happen under these new rules.

Instead, the Trump administration, it appears, threw their hands up and decided to throw a lot of the book out. School reform — and lunch reform, in this case — only succeeds when there is institutional support and proper funding. If success is uneven, it seems worthwhile to get information from a breadth of schools across the country at different funding levels and with different socioeconomic populations of their students. That could lead experts and reformers to believe that more funding for schools that need it more might make the program succeed — whether that be through technical support, additional funding, or increased staffing. Perhaps a combination of relaxed standards and more funding would do the trick. 

The problem with school and nutrition assistance is that it’s usually done on the barest budget possible. Consider that with the fact that in the fiscal year of 2018, Trump administration outright eliminated the School Meal Equipment Grants program, which was a $35 million program that helped schools upgrade their kitchen equipment in order to help them serve healthier foods, improve food safety, and support the maintenance of school breakfast programs. Schools are currently asked to do more with less — and because some of them can’t pull it off, the Trump administration has thrown up their hands. 

The real answer here is to not cut requirements. It’s to give the NSLP more money to feed more kids more effectively. But the Trump administration clearly seems hellbent on not doing that. Although the NSLP doesn’t come out of the Department of Education budget, when any part of a DoE budget is cut (the administration has proposed an unprecedented eight percent cut in funding for the fiscal year of 2021) the pie gets smaller. And more pieces of a school pie are stretched thinner and further. Add this to the proposed Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program cuts, which help provide free and reduced lunch for one million students, and schools are experiencing a perfect storm: less funding for school meals and the kids who eat them, especially for the poorest schools and the poorest kids, who are then, somehow, asked to do more and more for less.

There’s one clear solution to the problem, of course — don’t cut essential programs that help feed America’s kids and then throw your hands up when regulations get harder to meet and roll those regulations back, too. But, predictably, the Trump administration went the other way. 

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