A week into the tenure of agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue, the Trump administration is scrapping parts of Michelle Obama's initiative to make school lunches healthier— a costly and at times unpopular program that has for years been the target of intense industry lobbying.
The Trump administration said Monday that it would allow schools flexibility when it came to rules about the inclusion of whole grains, flavored milk, and salt in the National School Lunch Program, which is administered by USDA. Some schools will be granted exemptions from the whole grain requirement in the upcoming year; lunches won't be required to get less salty; and cafeterias will be allowed to offer flavored 1% milk again.
"We all know that meals can’t be nutritious if they’re not consumed — if they’re put in the trash," said Perdue in an announcement at a school in Virginia, where he ate a balanced meal of chicken nuggets and salad.
The Obama regulations, meant to combat childhood obesity, required chocolate or strawberry-flavored milk to be nonfat and mandated that at least 51% of grains be whole. Such rules were initially unpopular and sparked social media outrage when they were introduced in 2014. Teens tweeted photographs of their sparse meals, devoid of things like french fries and other carbohydrates, with the hashtag #thanksmichelleobama.
The school lunch rules even became a talking point for some Republicans on the campaign trail last year, with Ted Cruz repeatedly proclaiming that "If Heidi's first lady, french fries return to the cafeteria."
The regulations were also wildly disliked by food trade groups like the dairy industry and the School Nutrition Association (SNA), which represents the school lunch industry including large food companies, that said the rules were so expensive to implement that they "threatened" the lunch program. The SNA, whose CEO Patricia Montague stood alongside Perdue Monday to announce the changes, particularly singled out the rule about whole grains, which it said many schools considered a costly "burden."
Perdue said the rules made food less appetizing to children — take, for example, whole-grain grits. “The whole grain variety has little black flakes in it, and the kids won’t eat it," Perdue said.
Dairy industry lobbyists were thrilled with the news that schools could again begin serving chocolate and strawberry-flavored 1% milk. Some schools had removed flavored milk altogether in the wake of the new regulations.
"We've seen a reduction in milk consumption in schools because of this policy," said Chris Galen, a senior vice president of communications for the National Milk Producers Federation. "This is a nutrition problem that hopefully this change will help to address."
But public health groups criticized the rules change. “It’s discouraging that just days into his tenure, one of the first things that Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue will do is to roll back progress on the quality of the meals served to America’s children,” said Margo Wootan, the director of nutritional policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in a statement.