Last week, I was interviewed in both Mother Jones and on NPR’s Here and Now about the Trump administration’s recent weakening of school nutrition standards for whole grains, sodium, and flavored milk. And in both interviews, I started to sense that there may be a general misunderstanding about what these roll-backs actually mean.
You may think school districts now must comply with these new, weaker standards—shortchanging kids’ health in the process—but that’s not the case. Take a look at this forceful position statement issued by Minneapolis Public Schools shortly after Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s announcement of the roll-backs last month (the highlighting is mine):
In other words: Thanks, but no thanks, Sonny.
In 2017, 99 percent of districts were successfully meeting the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act’s (HHFKA) stronger, science-based nutrition standards. And even after President Obama’s U.S. Department of Agriculture started allowing districts to seek a waiver on whole grains (a waiver program that was only meant to be temporary), 85 percent of districts didn’t feel the need to obtain one.
In speaking privately to progressive school nutrition directors, I’ve also come to believe that of the 15 percent of districts which have taken advantage of the waiver program to date, only a smaller subset actually needed to do so. Why? Because manufacturers of K-12 pasta, rolls, and other grain foods have now had seven years to reformulate their products to contain just half whole grains, so it’s somewhat hard to believe there truly are no suitable whole-grain-rich products on the market.
Now, though, many more districts are likely to take full advantage of Perdue’s permanent weakening of the whole-grain and sodium standards. To be clear: This isn’t because the men and women running these meal programs don’t care about kids. It’s because we’ve unfortunately structured America’s school meal program to incentivize districts to get as many kids through the lunch line as possible, and foods higher in refined gains and salt are seen as a way to increase participation. But these weaker standards also put school meals outside the recommendations of the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans, even as very few kids are eating enough whole grains, while 9 out of 10 consume too much sodium.
But another reason why districts are likely to take advantage of these weaker standards is because they believe few parents are actually paying much attention. And that’s where you can make a real difference.
If you believe your district should stay the course and continue to meet the HHFKA’s stronger, science-based standards, contact your district’s school nutrition director (you should be able to find their contact information on your district’s website) and ask if they’d be willing to sign this pledge (you can save it to your computer by right-clicking on your mouse):
If your school nutrition director declines to sign the pledge, consider converting its language into an online petition request, and then circulating that petition in your community. If enough concerned parents and citizens sign the petition, he or she may reconsider.**
At the very least, a failure to sign the pledge puts you in a position to contact your local news media and say: “Gee, our district used to be in full compliance with stronger school meal standards—proving it’s totally achievable—so why can’t they simply stay the course for the sake of our kids’ health?”**
Let me know of your progress, and we can all use the Twitter and Facebook hashtag #StayTheCourse to stay connected on this important issue.
**[Editorial update, posted January 7th at 4:45pm CST: Please see my conversation below with Ali, a nutrition services director, regarding these last two suggestions.]
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♥♥♥ And look for my new book Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly-Processed World—out this fall from Oxford University Press!♥♥♥