Everyone by now knows what makes up a healthful lunch for schoolchildren. It’s largely the same as for adults: whole grains, lean meats, fresh vegetables and fruit, low sodium and easy on the fat.
In 2009, a federal study found that school meals were coming up short. Too high in sodium and sugar, “extremely low” in whole grains, and too much processed food. Out of that grew the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, a groundbreaking attempt to improve nutrition across the board for the meals served to U.S. schoolchildren.
The good news is that for the most part, it was successful. School meals are better than they have been in decades, and a U.S. Department of Agriculture report quietly released earlier this year showed eye-popping improvements. Meals that previously had a nutrition score of 57.9 had jumped to 81.5 on a 100-point scale. “This finding suggests that updated nutrition standards for school meals have had a positive and significant influence on nutritional quality.” The highest scores were for whole grains, greens and beans. Scores for whole grains skyrocketed from 25% to 95% of the maximum score. Greens and beans, from 21% to 72%. The level of refined grains, empty calories and sodium all dropped. School breakfasts saw similar improvements.
For lunches, more than 90% met the daily requirements for fruits, meats/meat alternatives and milk, and more than 80% for vegetables and grains. Even more encouraging, by 2016 the USDA found about 99% of schools in compliance with the improved standards.
Sadly, these gains may be fleeting. No matter the success, they run counter to the push by President Donald Trump’s USDA to lower standards for grains, milk and sodium. The result would allow more processed foods with higher fat, more salt and more sugar. In a nation where childhood obesity is rampant and doctors are seeing more diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure in some of their youngest patients, that’s the wrong direction.
Minnesota, thankfully, is among a half-dozen states fighting this rollback in court. Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said he is gathering affidavits attesting to the effectiveness of the higher standards and expects to argue the case in court in July, along with officials from the other states and organizations. The Trump administration is seeking a dismissal of the lawsuit and wants the relaxed rules to take effect before the new school year.
The National School Lunch Program began in 1946 and fed 7 million schoolchildren that year. It now feeds 30 million every school day, including 600,000 Minnesota children. It has been vital in allaying hunger in poor children, who sometimes get the bulk of their day’s food from school breakfasts and lunches. That big a chunk of a child’s food intake has to pack the maximum nutritional punch possible. To those who contend that children were turning their noses up at the more healthful offerings — a claim often repeated by critics of the Obama administration and Michelle Obama — there is strong evidence to the contrary.
A 2015 study published in Childhood Obesity showed that children ate more, threw away less and consumed the same amount of milk. The study concluded that “the revised meal standards and policies appear to have significantly lowered plate waste in school cafeterias.” Did the meals cost more? Again, no. As part of the 2010 act, schools created more networks with local farms. There are now 42,000 such farm-to-school networks that have helped offset costs.
No credible explanation has been offered as to why children would be better off by returning to a lower standard.
“Why would you want to diminish nutrition?” Ellison asked. “It’s cruel that the Trump administration would lower standards that could make low-income kids’ meals less healthful. The private sector will adjust, but why should they if they can just get the administration to do it their way? We’re going to stand up for quality food and kids.”