WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s proposed sweeping changes to school meal regulations, overturning key pieces of former first lady Michelle Obama’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, worries public health experts who fear an increase in childhood obesity while some school officials applaud the increased flexibility of the plans.

Under the Jan. 17 changes proposed by the USDA, schools would have more flexibility in the types of foods that fall under the umbrella of vegetables. The regulations would also give states more time to review school districts’ meal programs, from the current requirement of once every three years to five years.

Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said for many students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals, school lunches are their only chance to eat a nutritious meal during the day.

Benjamin said the impact of the changes will be seen in the next few decades, when he predicted obesity and cardiovascular disease rates will spike back up.

“As responsible adults, we have the responsibility to give children food options that are nutritious as often as we can,” Benjamin said. “This will have a significant impact, because it will provide kids with less fresh fruits and vegetables, less healthy options and more junk food. Kids will gravitate toward the junk food, so they will fundamentally be more unhealthy.”

But the School Nutrition Association applauded the proposal for more time between reviews.

“Our state agency contacts were saying that they were very stressed trying to keep up with that three-year review cycle,” said SNA spokeswoman Diane Pratt-Heavner. “If they can switch back to the five-year cycle… they’re able to spend more time responding to questions and providing training for the school districts that really need help.”

This is not the first time President Donald Trump’s administration has made changes to the federal school meal guidelines. Soon after he took the job, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue vowed to “make school meals great again,” saying meals that met the requirements of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act often ended up in the trash.

In December 2018, the USDA gave food service providers the option to offer flavored low-fat milk and nonwhole grains and provided more time for schools to reduce the sodium levels in their meals. Colin Schwartz, a deputy director of legislative affairs at the CSPI, criticized the decision to push back sodium level reductions.

“Salt is a silent killer,” Schwartz said. “Kids who consume too much salt are at risk of elevated blood pressure, hypertension and heart disease later in life.”

The changes proposed last month would go even further, lowering the fruit requirement in school breakfasts from a full cup to half a cup. More drastic, though, is the expansion of vegetable subgroups. Pasta made of vegetable flour could count as a vegetable, even when not served with another vegetable.

The total vegetable requirements would remain the same, but the required amount of red and orange vegetables would drop from 1.25 cups per week to just 0.5 cups. This opens the door for other types of vegetables, especially potatoes, to take the place of veggies like carrots, bell peppers and squash.
National Potato Council CEO Kam Quarles said he approved of the proposed changes and that the guidelines they are trying to replace were unfriendly to potatoes, which he noted are the only vegetable routinely eaten for breakfast.

“The philosophy was because (potatoes) potentially could be prepared in a single unhealthy way, therefore, the entire commodity is to be excluded,” Quarles said. “That’s way there was this big pushback. Our industry wasn’t happy about it, but it was the people who were being completely handcuffed in creating these school meals who were the most upset by it.”

But under the new guidelines, potatoes in any form — including French fries — could be considered vegetables. Geraldine Henchy, director of nutrition policy at the Food Research and Action Center, said this is a major loophole and one that could have dangerous consequences.

“There’s nothing wrong with potatoes in and of themselves,” Henchy said. “But French fries have a lot of fat in them. We’re not saying no potatoes, we’re saying it’s supposed to be a variety (of vegetables), and these complex rules really don’t help.”

The proposed regulations also would allow students to buy entrées à la carte, separate from prepared meals that offer an entrée and side dishes. A student might be able to have pizza one day as part of the main meal, then buy a piece of pizza again the next day as an à la carte item.

Schwartz said that because students would choose less healthy à la carte meals rather than the healthier, unified meals, they are spending less and schools will end up generating less revenue.

“Instead of buying the turkey burger and salad and fresh fruit, they’re just going to buy the pizza and French fries and a cookie,” Schwartz said. “A lot of schools think this is a money-maker, that if they just sell more french fries and pizza, they’re going to make more money, but actually the research shows the opposite.”

Schools should instead focus on making their meals programs healthier and more appetizing, Schwartz said, so that more students would buy the full meal rather than the á la carte snacks.

But Chris Rogers, a policy analyst at The School Superintendents Association, said having more à la carte options saves money by reducing waste.

“Under current regulations, schools can’t sell pizza, for instance, á la carte as a single option for two days after it’s already been provided as part of the unitized meal,” Rogers said. “We think (the changes) are going to streamline some of these strategies that schools are using to sell these competitive foods as well as maintain their nutritional value for students.”