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Departing Trump administration wants to weaken nutrition rules for school meals

The Trump administration would halve whole-grain requirements to 50%, do away with sodium-reduction targets, and re-introduce 1% chocolate milk for school meals.

A mother picks up bags of food for her child at the Student Meal Distribution center located at the Duckery Elementary School on Diamond Street in April.  School meals could change if the Trump administration successfully alters nutrition guidelines.
A mother picks up bags of food for her child at the Student Meal Distribution center located at the Duckery Elementary School on Diamond Street in April. School meals could change if the Trump administration successfully alters nutrition guidelines.Read moreMichael Bryant / File Photograph

In their last days in office, Trump administration officials are trying to reduce nutrition requirements for school meals, seeking to undo changes initiated by the Obama administration a decade ago.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says it wants to allow school districts to be more “flexible” with rules that previously stipulated 100% whole grains, reductions in sodium levels, and a switchover to fat-free flavored milk.

The Trump administration would halve whole-grain requirements to 50%, do away with sodium-reduction targets, and re-introduce 1% chocolate milk.

The administration’s stance, which critics say would make school meals less healthy, is seen as yet another slap at President Barack Obama, as well as at former First Lady Michelle Obama, who championed nutrition standards and helped inspire the bipartisan Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, whose 10-year anniversary is next week. Over the last four years, President Donald Trump has made no secret of wanting to reverse his predecessor’s accomplishments.

Anti-hunger advocates say the rule change will disproportionately affect low-income children who depend on school meals for balanced nutrition.

“It’s yet another example of the Trump administration ignoring science,” said Kathy Fisher, policy director of the nonprofit Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, which helps connect people in need to food programs. “Medical professionals and nutritionists helped create these rules years ago because they’re best for kids.

The School District of Philadelphia says it will not be following the proposed Trump administration flexibilities, but will instead adhere to the Obama-era guidelines.

“Children are used to them, and it is our intention not to change back,” said Wayne Grasela, senior vice president at the district.

Amy Virus, manager, administrative and supportive services for the district, agreed. What the Trump administration is doing, she said, “essentially will not have an impact” on Philadelphia’s public schools.

Food being “wasted”

The USDA says food rules for school meals should change because data show that 25% of nutrients are currently being “wasted.” Children don’t like the healthier options, the USDA says, and many simply aren’t eating what’s being served, according to a spokesperson: “If they are not eating, children are not benefiting, and we don’t want to let that happen on our watch.”

Fisher disagreed, saying that research shows that kids have grown accustomed to more healthful foods. She also pointed out that Trump has attempted to undercut kids’ nutrition before by recommending slashing food stamp benefits (now known as SNAP, for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance) three times, which ran counter to the will of members of both parties in Congress. Children, the elderly, and disabled people receive the most SNAP benefits.

» READ MORE: Trump administration tries once more to cut food stamps (from 2019)

The run at school meals is another example of the Trump administration’s numerous last-minute efforts to change U.S. policy.

The White House sent the USDA a proposal three days after the presidential election that would allow poultry plants the right to increase their work-line speeds. During the Obama administration, officials had rejected a similar request from poultry producers on the grounds that a faster process would endanger workers.

The administration is also working to cap the visas of foreign students and restrict scientific research by the Environmental Protection Agency. Just on Monday, administration officials rejected tougher standards on soot, the nation’s most widespread deadly air pollutant.

» READ MORE: Trump administration rejects tougher standards on soot, a deadly air pollutant

“Trump hates anything that was Obama but also loves anything that’s corporate,” said Marion Nestle, professor emerita of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University.

Nestle suggested that by cutting school-meal standards, the Trump administration is aiding companies that supply food, since healthy food is more costly.

USDA officials disagree, saying the administration is balancing the needs of various groups to offer what’s best for American students.

“USDA is committed to working with states, school nutrition professionals, private industry, and other stakeholders to develop a forward-thinking strategy that ensures school nutrition standards are both healthful and practical,” the spokesperson said.

“[The agency] will continue to listen to our stakeholders and provide... technical assistance where needed to ensure their...success in running these critical nutrition assistance programs.”

Blocked by a judge

In 2017, one year after taking office, Trump tried to change the Obama-era grain, sodium, and milk stipulations, but was later rebuffed by a federal judge who, ruling on a technicality, said the administration had not altered the guidelines in the proper manner.

But recently, the administration has made another go of it. This is in spite of an overwhelming set of comments (more than 90%) by experts and others nationwide saying it was the wrong thing to do.

The administration is racing to make changes before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden. To get its rule promulgated, the administration must hold yet another comment period that will last until Christmastime. Then it must be written and ready to go before Inauguration Day on Jan. 20.

“They’re running up against the clock,” according to a statement from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “They need to finish under deadline, but also make sure they cross their t’s and dot their i’s, so they can survive any legal challenges.”

Not easy to reverse

Although a new president will be in charge soon, that doesn’t mean potential Trump administration changes can be easily reversed.

Unlike an executive order that a new president could rescind simply by signing his name, completed regulations such as Trump’s desired school-meal nutrition alterations are much more difficult to overturn. It would take a court decision or another painstaking rule-making effort, experts said.

“The likely outcome will be that Biden wouldn’t be able to change Trump’s potential new rule for the rest of this school year, and into the next school year,” said Geri Henchy, director of nutrition policy for the Washington, D.C.-based Food Research & Action Center, the largest anti-hunger lobby in the United States. “In the long run, Trump will fail, but in the short term, he may succeed.”

» READ MORE: How America’s approach to poverty could change in a Biden administration, Congress willing

Ultimately, given the outcome of the election, advocates are left wondering why any of this is happening at all.

”Now would be a better time to worry about the COVID-19 crisis, and the fact that people who’ve lost their jobs don’t have enough to eat,” said Fisher of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition. “This is a waste of people’s time.

“Just don’t do it.”