Trump Targets Healthy School Lunches

Image: The Washington Post

As Lola Fadulu wrote for the New York Times, last Friday the Trump administration moved to roll back school nutrition standards championed by Michelle Obama, an effort long sought by food manufacturers and some school districts that have chafed at the cost of Mrs. Obama’s prescriptions for fresh fruit and vegetables.

The Facts Speak for Themselves: The Department of Agriculture’s own research on the effects of the Obama-era rules undercuts this claim, however. In its 2019 “School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study,” the department found no dramatic changes in the amount of food waste, and also found compliance with the rules led to better participation rates in school meal programs.

Time May Be The Issue: It’s not so much that kids are tossing their veggies, it’s the fact that they may not be getting enough time to eat. Researchers at Harvard University have found that schoolkids will consume more fruits and vegetables if they are given at least 25 minutes to eat.

  • The researchers followed more than 1,000 elementary school kids from low-income families who were eligible for these free school-based meals.
  • They found that children with less than 20 minutes of seated lunch time consumed 13 percent less of their entrees, 10 percent less of their milk and 12 percent less of their whole grains and vegetables when compared with students who had at least 25 minutes to sit and eat their lunch.
  • Kids who were given less time for lunch also were less likely to choose healthier options.

The History: Serving nutritious school lunches began in the late 19th century in the United States and because an official federal program in 1946–as the government recognized the benefit of keeping kids healthy and fed.

However, as TIME explained, in 1981, as part of an attempt to curtail government waste, the Reagan Administration slashed Federal school lunch spending by $1.5 billion and attempted to make up for the reduced budget by shrinking lunch portions, reducing the number of poor children eligible for free or reduced-lunch, and famously declaring that ketchup was a vegetable in order to meet nutrition standards. Cheaper and less nutritious foods began to be served in school–the types of food that benefit growers of big commodity crops like corn, wheat, and soy.

Then, in 2010, in an attempt to return to the original intentions of school lunch programs, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which allows the Department of Agriculture to overhaul school meals to meet new nutrition standards.

Why This Matters: More than 13 million children in the United States live in “food insecure” homes, and a healthy school lunch may be the only reliable meal some children receive. Cutting the mandates for a healthy school lunch means that millions of American children will not receive the nutrition they need to grow and learn properly. When vegetables are taken off the menu and replaced with less nutritious food made out of corn, wheat, and soy, it’s hard to see this move as anything but a handout to Big Ag–something that the Trump administration (and esp Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue, a former agribusiness exec) has made a habit of these past 3 years.

Go Deeper: Turning to more corn, soy, and wheat to feed kids (over fresh fruits and veggies) is also troubling for our planet.

Go Even Deeper: See how school cafeterias are getting kids to eat healthier meals around the country.

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