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Relaxed School Lunch Guidelines Could Push Nutrition Off the Plate

School lunch programs have been one of the most widely-talked about issues in education and nutrition over the last few years, and a rollback on programs championed by Michelle Obama is shaking things up once again.

Under the Trump administration, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue recently announced that school lunches would no longer be held to the standards that were put in place under the Obama administration. So what exactly were those standards and what might the food on a student’s lunch tray look like under President Trump?

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 required schools to move away from foods high in saturated fats and sodium and set in place a focus on lower calorie lunches that were rich in whole grains and vegetables. Roughly 32 million students have been eating those meals over the last seven years.

Healthy they were -- the problem with them that critics pointed out is that they didn’t taste very good and many of those lunches ended up going straight into the trash. “If kids aren’t eating the food and it’s ending up in the trash, they aren’t getting any nutrition -- thus undermining the intent of the program,” Purdue told the press.

Schools that felt the school lunch program under the Obama administration was too rigid will now have a little more wiggle room when it comes to planning meals under the new regulations that allow schools an opt-out option. At the start of the next school year, schools will be able to serve 1 percent milk in addition to the non-fat milk, delay the sodium mandate and request to be exempt from the whole grain requirements. Perdue said the lax regulations are both an effort to reduce the cost of the Obama-era school lunch program as well as “make school meals great again” (i.e., taste better).

Understandably, this brings up the issue of nutritious meals that will ensure students are getting at least one healthy meal a day, versus meals that could have some nutritional pitfalls, but are more likely to be eaten by students. “Just because children would rather eat heavily salted, processed foods at school doesn’t mean they should,” Ken Cook, president of the Environmental working group told The New York Times.

Finding a compromise of the two hasn’t always been easy. While the nutritional value of the Obama-era school lunches did skyrocket by 30 percent according to a study published by JAMA Pediatrics, the School Nutrition Association regularly lobbied for Congress to relax the standards with the claim that cafeterias were losing money because the students who paid for their lunches stopped buying them.

The driving force behind the move for healthier school lunches has been the war against childhood obesity. Childhood obesity has tripled over the last several decades with the root cause being linked to environments that cater to unhealthy eating. Bigger plate and drink sizes, easy access to fast food, fewer home-cooked meals and a tidal wave of processed foods have all contributed to this toxic nutritional environment.

"We are raising our children in a world that is vastly different than it was 40 or 50 years ago,"  Yoni Freedhoff, an obesity doctor told Scientific American. "Childhood obesity is a disease of the environment. It's a natural consequence of normal kids with normal genes being raised in unhealthy, abnormal environments."

Finding a balance that has students eager to eat their school-provided meals, while at the same time ensuring they don’t sacrifice nutrition isn’t an easy recipe to pull off.


Article by Joel Stice, Education World Contributor


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