School Lunch

Sanity Restored to School Lunches?

It doesn't matter how healthy options are if kids won't eat them.

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Lunch ladies, school staff, and political partisans were polarized by Obama-era attempts to put healthier fare on school lunch menus. The Trump administration's revision to those rules has received equally mixed reactions from folks on the frontlines of the food fight.

Supporters of the old rules contend that school meals should be nutritious, that the feds know best what this means, and that deviation from federally approved meal plans is just asking for trouble. "When it comes to our children's health, there should be no 'flexibility,'" the American Heart Association responded last December, after Megan Gibbons, executive director of the Illinois School Nutrition Association, told a local paper that changes weren't a rollback but simply offered more "flexibility."

But the Obama-era rules had led to less lunch revenue for schools, more students relying on unhealthy vending-machine snacks for sustenance, more food waste, and other unintended consequences, detractors said.

It doesn't matter how healthy options are if kids won't eat them, and many would not. "Countless parents and more than one million public school students voted with their mouths, leaving the school lunch program in unprecedented droves last year," reported Baylen Linnekin for Reason in 2014.

That was the deadline year for schools to implement some of the changes, which were set forth by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, championed by then–first lady Michelle Obama and hashed out by the Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Some of those mandates could actually have led to healthier lunches being served, but others were silly shifts that were nutrition-neutral or even made meals worse, healthwise. For instance, the rules stipulated that only nonfat flavored milk cartons could be sold. But current wisdom holds that sugar poses the nutrition problem; reducing fat content doesn't change that. Meanwhile, nonfat milk may offer fewer nutrients than 2 percent or whole milk.

Still, much ink has been spilled casting hyperbolic aspersions at the USDA's latest iteration of rules for school lunches. A Vox headline in January warned that "federally funded school lunches are about to get a lot less healthy." Four paragraphs in, the author described the changes as "mostly cosmetic."

Under the USDA's latest update, schools must still reduce sodium levels but will have until 2024 to get there. Fewer whole grains will be required in some foods, and flavored milk won't have to be nonfat. Schools are, of course, welcome to keep up with any new healthy habits they choose.