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On May 1st, U.S. Cabinet member Sonny Perdue announced his first big act as Agriculture Secretary: change the current guidelines for federally subsidized lunches in schools. According to Food Business News, the “U.S. Department of Agriculture will provide greater flexibility for schools in meeting nutrition requirements for school meal programs,” but what does that mean?

From pizza with a crust whose taste and texture perfectly imitate a dish sponge to too-bland or too-salty entrées, school lunches have always been notoriously questionable not just in terms of flavor, but also in terms of how healthy they are. Providing school children with healthy lunches was one of the initiatives that former First Lady Michelle Obama took on. Due to her efforts with the Let’s Move! initiative, new federal guidelines were rolled out for schools across the United States under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. For the first time in 30 years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) would be allowed to make changes to school lunch program.

Regulations set in place by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act included allowing the USDA to set nutritional standards for all food served in schools, from hot lunches to vending machines and to incorporate meals based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, with an emphasis on fresh fruit, vegetables, and whole grains. But unfortunately, some schools have been facing difficulty when it comes to getting kids to eat healthier food.

According to Perdue, his reason for changing this is, “the result of years of feedback from students, schools, and food service experts about the challenges they are facing in meeting the final regulations for school meals. 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.”

Of course, we agree that food waste in the United States is a major problem and should not be taken lightly. But healthy food should be a priority in schools. What’s important is that under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, 115,000 new students were allowed into school meal programs, more children in high-poverty areas were given easier access to free lunches, and 21 million more meals to at-risk children were provided, thanks to reimbursement to Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) providers in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. If states fall back into the prior lax guidelines for school lunches, millions of children may be denied access to the only healthy meal they have every day. Whether or not students find the current healthier meals appetizing is another issue — one that can be worked on.

Going forward, the USDA will now allow states to grant exemptions to schools experiencing hardships meeting whole grain guidelines for the 2017-18 school year, but that they will take necessary regulatory actions to find a long-term solution, though they haven’t yet disclosed what those actions are. According to Perdue, more local control granted to states “means that this new flexibility will give schools and states the option of doing what we’re laying out here today. These are not mandates on schools.”

While we can hope that this means that schools will to the right thing for students dependent on free meals, U.S. News reports that the School Nutrition Association (SNA), which represents school nutrition directors and companies that sell to schools, has pushed for changes to whole grain and sodium requirements and has also lobbied for “more flexibility” in the rules that give kids access to fresh fruits and vegetables, but they have yet to explain what that would entail. Why would the SNA, which works with the USDA to provide food for students according to regulations put in place by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, push for a return to lax regulations?

Visiting their list of sponsors for their Annual Nutrition Conferences gives us a bit of an idea. On the list of their 2015 sponsors are companies and organizations such as Domino’s, Cargill, Tyson Foods Inc. (which made $83.9 million from schools in 2015, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine), PepsiCo Foodservice, The National Dairy Council, Jack Link’s Protein Snacks, and more — not exactly what you would have in mind when you think of “healthy food.” You can find a similar list of sponsors for their previous conferences.

Our children, especially those who depend on schools for their lunches, deserve better. While this may feel like a step backward, relegating more control of school lunches back to states rather than the federal government does not need to mean that we fall back to old school standards. Like other school districts, we can mobilize and push for healthier meals. Thanks to the actions of the community, schools in Oakland, California introduced a new school lunch menu with an emphasis on fresh, healthy produce. And in the Poway Unified School District and the Los Angeles School District, groups of students, teachers, and parents are rallying for a ban on unhealthy, processed meats that are likely sold to schools via the USDA and the SNA.

Rather than wait for the federal government to come forward with new changes to the school program, we should, like in those three California school districts, push for healthy school meals for all children.

Lead image source: Elena Veselova/Shutterstock

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