The Trump administration is nibbling away at Michelle Obama’s school lunch program, a well-intentioned but flawed attempt to make kids eat better at school and stem rising childhood obesity rates. Congress passed the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, which set tight restrictions on dairy, salt, and sugar content in school meals while pushing fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
In one of his first acts as President Trump’s new secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue announced modest changes on May 1 to give schools more “flexibility in menu planning so they can serve nutritious and appealing meals and encourage student participation in the meal programs.”
Far from the major overhaul to the program that critics wanted and supporters feared, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will delay future sodium limits, ease whole-grain requirements, and let schools serve 1 percent flavored milk instead of the fat-free version: “This announcement is the result of years of feedback from students, school, and food service experts about the challenges they are facing,” Perdue said in a statement. “If kids aren’t eating the food, and it’s ending up in the trash, they aren’t getting any nutrition.”
The Schoolyard Wrath Michelle Obama Wrought
Since Mrs. Obama’s signature policy went into effect, school districts have encountered a number of problems, from budgets running in the red to garbage cans overflowing with discarded food. The rules force students to take either a fruit or vegetable with each meal, and the produce is often tossed in the garbage.
Schools struggle to replace white flour with whole grains to make edible items like bagels, tortillas, and grits. Restrictions on salt are so tough that there have been reports of teachers policing pickle intake and some students bringing in contraband salt packets for lunch. Kids started posting pictures of their inedible lunches under the hashtag #thanksMichelleObama.
The School Nutrition Association, which supported the initial legislation but has since pushed for reform after seeing the fallout in cafeterias across the country, lauded Perdue’s plan to loosen “overly prescriptive regulations that have resulted in unintended consequences, including reduced student lunch participation, higher costs and food waste.”
There is scant evidence the law has achieved any measurable success, particularly in lowering childhood obesity rates. According to one Centers for Disease Control survey, the obesity rate among high school students has increased from 13 percent in 2011 to 13.9 percent in 2015, with higher spikes among some demographics. Other studies show a slight uptick in fruit and vegetable consumption at some school districts, but whether that affects current or long-term health is unclear.
We Don’t Know Enough to Make National Nutrition Plans
The bigger problem is that the guidelines are not rooted in science. There is no proof a diet low in sugar, sodium, and fat is “healthier” for children with developing brains and bodies. In fact, the lunch requirements mirror much of the same misguided dietary advice the federal government has given adults for more than three decades.
Eliminating fat from our diets has not made American adults healthier or slimmer, and the same goes for children. For example, Canadian researchers recently found children who drank whole milk had higher Vitamin D intake and a lower body mass index than children who drank low-fat milk. Fat-free dairy products fail to satiate hungry appetites and are usually loaded with other fillers like extra sugar and artificial thickeners. Allowing schools to now offer 1 percent milk instead of skim doesn’t do much in this direction, either.
Same for sodium. Right now, a high school lunch can’t have more than roughly a two-third teaspoon of sodium, which might sound generous but given the amount of naturally occurring sodium in everything from lunchmeat to salad dressing, it’s already a challenge. The next target would have reduced that further, to less than half a teaspoon. So while delaying the next target is laudable, there is no nutritional science that supports the current sodium limits. It leaves in place a needless regulation that will do nothing to make kids healthier or less hungry.
We Can’t Afford Middle-Class Welfare
The reforms also fail to address the school lunch program’s rising costs over the past five years due to the Community Eligibility Provision, the part of Mrs. Obama’s policy that allowed more students to qualify for “free” or reduced-price meals, even those who don’t need it. CEP allows entire school districts, rather than individual households, to apply for taxpayer-funded breakfast and lunch.
For example, since 2011 all 400,000 students who attend Chicago Public Schools have received a fully taxpayer-sponsored breakfast and lunch regardless of financial need. (CPS was in the pilot program before it went nationwide.) A bill introduced last year sought to raise the threshold for districts to qualify for CEP, but it doesn’t look like Congress has the appetite to move forward with that plan any time soon.
A USDA spokeswoman told me she “can’t really speculate on any potential changes to the program. For now everything else is the same.” Instead of making incremental, largely meaningless tweaks to the program, the administration and Congress should go back to the cafeteria table and overhaul it completely. Guidelines should be based on sound science and common sense, results-tested every few years, and only students who really need the free meals should get them. Perdue and Congress need to put this back on the chopping block.