The National Food Fight: Trump Administration takes on Obama-era School Nutrition Regulations
“Who wants a heated bagel?” a woman called out from behind the cafeteria counter. At a table in Washington Elementary School in West Haven, in 2007, nine-year-old Susie Beyl leaped up to receive the culinary masterpiece. The renowned heated bagel, which consisted of a microwaved bagel and cream cheese, was offered to students who did not want the pepperoni pizza, hot dogs, or spaghetti featured on the regular lunch line.
“I was a picky eater, so I didn’t like much of it,” Beyl ’20, now a student at Yale, said in an interview with The Politic about her elementary school experience.
“I was just starting to toy with vegetarianism, and sometimes I found that I didn’t have much food to eat,” she said. “I was never really into the juices that were provided either, or the milks. I was a big water drinker, but at my elementary school, they never provided bottles of water unless you bought them.”
Beyl lacked healthy options because Washington Elementary School followed outdated national school nutrition standards last revised in 1980. As a result, elementary schooler Beyl had no choice but to wait for the heated bagel and drink rusty-tasting fountain water.
But those standards changed during Beyl’s middle school years. In 2010, under Barack Obama’s presidency, Congress passed the first reform to school nutrition standards in 30 years: the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. In an interview with The Politic, Colin Schwartz, a senior nutrition policy associate at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, called the Act one of the “greatest achievements…to prevent childhood obesity.”
Though the Trump administration has not repealed the landmark law, it has used every opportunity to push back at its aims. On May 1, 2017, the administration announced plans to relax Obama-era nutrition guidelines set by the Department of Agriculture. Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, who is leading the change, cited increased food waste and heightened complaints from students and school administrators as reasons for the revisions.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is a legacy of former First Lady Michelle Obama, who pushed for the legislation as part of her Let’s Move! campaign. The Act was intended to increase access to healthy meals in schools by reauthorizing funding for child nutrition programs and school lunch programs. The updated standards required all school meals to provide larger portions of fruits, vegetables and whole grain foods and lower amounts of salt, as well as zero trans fat. Schools were only permitted to serve low-fat milk, and flavored milks had to be fat-free.
Researchers have praised the legislation. A Harvard School of Public Health study argued that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is one of the most important national obesity-prevention policy achievements in recent decades. It estimated that the policy would prevent over two million cases of childhood obesity and save up to 800 million dollars in health care costs over the next ten years.
“We updated the nutrition standards so that now, schools that participate in the national school lunch and school breakfast programs, which are most schools in this country, have to provide healthier school meals,” Schwartz said. “We see study after study show that the impact of the law will make a dent in childhood obesity and is helping to decrease health disparities between low-income students that have less access to healthy food and high-income students that have greater access to healthy food.”
These nutrition standards were developed in part with the aid of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, where Schwartz works as a senior nutrition policy associate. The Center is a nonprofit watchdog and advocacy group established nearly 45 years ago to work on federal policy issues pertaining to school food, menu labeling, nutrition facts, food safety, funding appropriations and regulatory work.
“We work on improving the food environment so that all Americans can eat better,” Schwartz said. “That entails trying to change the food environment from where you go to school to where you work to where you play to where you dine out, as well as changing the foods that are marketed and produced so that consumers can make the easy choice the healthy one, and the healthy choice the easy one.”
And at West Haven’s only public high school, the healthy choice did become the easy one. Beyl recalls that at West Haven High School, packing a lunch from home was uncommon. Because almost everyone ate school food, students noticed a drastic change in their meals after the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.
Before 2014, Beyl often skipped lunch because she disliked the unhealthy food so much. That meant Beyl, and other students who shared her sentiment, were enduring entire school days without a substantial meal.
Then, in response to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, West Haven High switched food companies to Sodexo in 2014. The most noteworthy change that followed, especially for vegetarian students like Beyl, was the addition of a salad bar to the lunch line. Food service workers would stand behind the bar and portion veggies into a bowl according to a student’s requests, allowing students to build their own salads while ensuring they received balanced amounts of different produce.
“You had your choice of spinach, iceberg lettuce, romaine lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, peppers, chickpeas, black beans,” Beyl remembered fondly. “Then I started finding time to get lunch when we had this option here. Also it’s vegetarian, finally I can get something, you know? That was a huge improvement.”
Despite the promising improved health outcomes for students, political opposition hindered the Act’s momentum. The Obama Administration faced pressure from groups that found the updated nutrition standards too demanding and too rigid—particularly regarding salt.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act established sodium targets for school meals that steadily decreased over a ten-year period. In response, the School Nutrition Association, which represents food service professionals and food manufacturers, lobbied to weaken the requirements on the grounds that they were too difficult to meet. If salt drastically and suddenly dropped in school food, lobbyists argued, students would find the food untasty and stop participating in school lunch and breakfast programs.
Indeed, data from the Department of Agriculture shows a one-million-student drop in school lunch program enrollment in 2015. Such a decline would create financial challenges for schools whose funding is dependent on students buying school meals. Big companies frustrated with the costs of having to reformulate recipes and adjust production, like Schwan Food Co., the largest producer of school pizza, also took issue with the administration’s sodium reduction targets.
Despite the opposition, schools are already meeting the first sodium-level target according to Schwartz. Companies are also adjusting: Schwan Food, for example, has reformulated its pizza to meet the federal guidelines. Yet, companies continue to lobby Congress to relax those regulations.
The Trump Administration aims to undo the strict regulations from the Obama Administration. The new revisions allow low-fat flavored milk back into schools so that now, students may have one-percent fat chocolate milk in addition to the fat-free chocolate milk required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Another change postpones the second sodium-level target, originally planned for the 2017-18 school year, to 2021. The third revision expands a waiver program under which schools that have difficulty finding or purchasing pastas, tortillas and breads that are 51 percent or more whole grain can avoid doing so.
According to Schwartz, on a national scale, there is little evidence suggesting that increased food waste has been consequence of the nutrition standards established by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.
“Food waste has always been an issue in schools,” Schwartz said. “It was an issue before the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, it’s still an issue after. Kids just throw away a lot of their food in schools. But the vast majority of studies show that plate waste in schools has either stayed the same or has actually gone down.We see that the vast majority of kids are actually eating more fruits and vegetables, and that means discarding less of their lunches. They’re eating more of their entrees as well.”
In New Haven, plate waste trends reflect those of the national scale. According to Gail Sharry, executive food service director for New Haven Public Schools, an study conducted in New Haven found that waste levels have not risen following the implementation of the Act.
Student dissatisfaction, however, is a demonstrable concern.
When the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act came into effect, Sharry was the executive food service director of New London Public Schools. She remembers that complaints from students were an issue in the initial years following the updated federal guidelines.
“The kids were more used to white bread and white pasta and white pizza crust, and even rice, we usually used white rice,” Sharry said. “Now we use brown rice and whole grain or whole wheat. And at the time…the products weren’t the best. The manufacturers were rushed to try to create these products, so they weren’t the best quality and we had issues. Like with the brown rice, it either came out very sticky or hard. But now, years later, the rice is awesome. They’ve figured out how to do it, and they give you the right directions so that you can do it.”
Sharry decided to adopt the updated nutrition standards gradually, so that students and food service employees alike would not be hit all at once with numerous changes. For example, New London schools began serving sandwiches that had half white and half whole-grain bread. These gradual adjustments began a year prior to the passage of the Act, and in conjunction with nutrition education classes provided by Sharry and interns who traveled from classroom to classroom, they made students more receptive toward the new food products.
“Basically, the biggest issue for the kids was the brown, the color of the product, because they weren’t used to it,” Sharry said. “But once they got used to it, I think year two went a lot easier and the products were a lot better. The manufacturers made changes pretty quickly to fix their product, so that wasn’t an issue for us.”
The adjustment strategies that Sharry employed in New London seem to have been effective in West Haven as well. Beyl, now an Education Studies Scholar at Yale, emphasizes the value of such nutrition education classes.
“I recall there being demonstrations of healthy eating in lower grades, maybe fourth and fifth grade,” Beyl said. “Like, ‘Here, let’s make a green smoothie,’ showing kids how to make a smoothie. That’s such an important thing to have happened, providing that nutritional literacy resource that used to be nonexistent—I mean, I had heated bagels for five years.”
Beyl remembers that in addition to the salad bar, West Haven High School’s switch to Sodexo also added a deli station where students could order a sandwich or wrap. The bread and tortillas were multigrain by default, with no alternatives. According to Beyl, these healthier options were not cause for complaint among West Haven High School students.
“It was just like, ‘Oh, cool, we have sandwiches now. Wraps? Neat!’ No one even commented on the fact that it was whole wheat,” Beyl said. “I mean, just the fact that we had a sandwich was cool because if you didn’t want pizza or French fries or what was being offered, you could have other options. And [these options] were super popular. A salad was the thing to get. They were good salads, and they were big salads.”
For schools in New London, West Haven and New Haven, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act ushered in changes that posed administrative challenges and costs initially but have since been well-received. According to Sharry, New Haven will continue abiding by the Act’s guidelines. If New Haven were to relax nutrition standards in accordance with the revisions to the Act, the district would have to submit an application to the state Department of Education for approval. Since New Haven students are not complaining about the healthier menus, Sharry sees no reason to undergo the additional administrative and bureaucratic hassle. The revision to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act that relaxes milk guidelines does not even apply to New Haven, as the district stopped serving any flavored milk nearly a decade ago.
“The kids are accepting our menus as they are right now. And we do know that they are a little bit healthier than before,” Sharry said. “And I’d rather stick with that than be lenient just because we can. I don’t think we need to do that if we don’t have to. I mean, if the students really didn’t like the products that we are serving right now, then I might think about it. But right now our participation is pretty good and they like our products.”
While some food service directors such as Sharry hope to continue the trajectory of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, nutrition policy advocates and analysts worry that the pushback from the Trump Administration will interrupt the momentum championed by the Obama White House.
“The Trump Administration is pulling out all the stops to rollback any protection or public health safeguard at the expense of harming kids’ health and thwarting the tremendous progress that schools and companies have made to provide healthier school meals for low-income kids,” Schwartz said. “So we need to do everything that we can to maintain the progress.”