LEESBURG, Va. – Newly minted U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue rolled back Michelle Obama’s school food restrictions Monday during a visit to a Leesburg, Virginia elementary school.
“This announcement is the result of years of feedback from students, schools and food service experts about the challenges they are facing in meeting the final regulations for school meals,” Perdue said at Catoctin Elementary School during a lunch with Sen. Pat Roberts and the School Nutrition Association’s Patricia Montague.
“If kids aren’t eating the food, and it’s ending up in the trash, they aren’t getting any nutrition – thus undermining the intent of the program.”
The announcement, timed to coincide with School Nutrition Employee Week, comes five years after Michelle Obama-inspired restrictions on calories, fat, sugar, salt, and other components of school food took effect in 2012.
Those regulations were met with a public backlash as more than 1.4 million students dropped out of the National School Lunch Program, and others launched petitions, boycotts, parody videos, and other efforts to highlight their disgusting school meals.
A requirement that all students take a fruit or vegetable – whether they want it or not – has also contributed to a $1 billion annual increase in school food waste.
School nutrition directors, meanwhile, have struggled to create appetizing meals under the regulations that students will actually eat, while at the same time combating rising costs associated with the changes.
“According to USDA figures, school food requirements cost school districts and states an additional $1.22 billion in Fiscal Year 2015,” according to a USDA press release.
“I was talking to some folks in Washington about this, and they said that the current program is working. ‘How do you know?’ I asked. They said it’s because 99 percent of schools are at least partially compliant. Well, only in Washington can that be considered proof that the system is working as it was intended,” Perdue said.
“A perfect example is in the south, where the schools want to serve grits. But the whole grain variety has little black flakes in it, and the kids won’t eat it. The school is compliant with the whole grain requirements, but no one is eating the grits. That doesn’t make any sense.”
The changes signed by Perdue on Monday target three areas: whole grains, sodium and milk.
The USDA will allow states to grant exemptions next year to schools struggling to comply with the 100 percent whole grain rich requirements for grain products, and will delay a scheduled reduction in sodium levels set to take effect for 2017-18.
“Instead, schools that meet Sodium Target 1 (the current requirement) will be considered compliant,” according to the USDA.
The department will also schools to serve 1 percent flavored milk with school meals, instead of only white nonfat or skim milk under the current regulations.
“I’ve got 14 grandchildren, and there is no way that I would propose something if I didn’t think it was good, healthful, and the right thing to do,” Perdue said. “And here the thing about local control: it means that this new flexibility will give schools and states the option of doing what we’re laying out here today. These are not mandates on schools.”
“I commend Secretary Perdue for taking this important step,” Montague said. “We have been wanting flexibility so that schools can serve meals that are both nutritious and palatable. We don’t want kids wasting their meals by throwing them away.
“Some of our schools are actually using that food as waste compost,” she said. “That shouldn’t be happening.”
Democratic lawmakers and fans of Michelle Obama badmouthed the changes for undermining “Obama’s food policy legacy.”
“Michelle Obama started a conversation with every mom and dad in America on what they were feeding their kids in a way that didn’t cast judgement,” said Scott Faber, of the Environmental Working Group, told the Los Angeles Times.
“Nothing will change that legacy, but unfortunately today’s actions will delay and undermine Obama’s food policy legacy.”
“The USDA and President Trump have now decided to roll back much of the progress we have made in the fight against rates of childhood obesity and malnutrition,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, of Connecticut. “This interim final rule by the USDA is a slippery slope that will completely undermine school breakfast and lunch programs and the USDA should immediately reverse course.”