A group of six US states and Washington, DC, filed a lawsuit against the US government on Wednesday for quietly rolling back school meal nutrition standards.
New York, California, Illinois, Minnesota New Mexico, and Vermont, and DC say they are suing the Department of Agriculture (USDA), and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, to protect the health of schoolchildren.
In 2018, the USDA withdrew science-based guidelines introduced in 2012, that promoted more whole grains and less sodium in school cafeteria meals. The complaint issued in a Manhattan federal court claims that by not allowing the public to comment ahead of the rule change, the USDA violated federal law.
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New York Attorney General Letitia James, who is leading the lawsuit, is concerned about how the rollback will affect marginalized students. In 2017, New York City passed legislation to offer free lunches to all students to battle hunger in schools.
“Over a million children in New York — especially those in low-income communities and communities of color — depend on the meals served daily by their schools to be healthy, nutritious, and prepare them for learning,” James said in a statement released to the Hill.
The USDA school meals program provides low-cost or free lunches in public schools and other institutions. In 2018, it served an estimated 30 million children, according to the Associated Press.
When students don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, they can focus on learning. Participation in government benefit programs and healthy school lunches has been shown to improve students’ academic performance and their short and long term health. Former First Lady Michelle Obama advocated heavily for new nutrition standards as part of her healthier school lunch initiative Let’s Move! to solve the growing obesity epidemic.
American children are fed too much sodium, raising their risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke, Center for Science in the Public Interest and Healthy School Food Maryland Vice President Margo Wootan told ABC. They also eat too much white refined flour and not enough whole grains, she added.
Keeping school lunches high in sodium and low in whole grains puts children's health at risk, but that’s exactly what the Trump administration is doing. We're fighting back with @DemocracyFwd and @SchoolFood_MD. https://t.co/U1jUlpird0pic.twitter.com/ZlbrWZ2Kks— CSPI (@CSPI) April 3, 2019
But some say they found the USDA’s relaxed nutrition guidelines helpful. The New York School Nutrition Association (NYSNA), a national nonprofit organization that represents over 4,300 school nutrition professionals, said now it’s easier for school cafeterias to appeal to a wide range of students.
“I have heard from multiple foodservice directors throughout NY State who appreciated USDA offering this flexibility on a more permanent basis, rather than having to request waivers on a yearly basis for items like pasta or bagels,” Jennifer Martin, executive director of the New York School Nutrition Association, told Global Citizen via email.
“One district commented that when they served whole grain pasta the majority of that pasta would end up in the trash,” Martin said.
Others would argue picky eaters shouldn’t derail efforts to meet nutrition standards. Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs at the Food Research & Action Center, told Global Citizen there are plenty of creative strategies to improve school meal consumption.
“The school lunchroom is a huge opportunity to introduce kids to healthy food, and lots of schools are doing that by doing taste tests and having student advisory committee,” FitzSimons said.
Having recess before lunch, rather than after, which often increases plate waste because children rush out of the cafeteria, is another option.
“It’s really important for us to provide the most healthy meals possible for students to ensure that they have the nutrition they need to stay healthy and be in school each day, focus, and learn,” FitzSimons said.