In 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was passed, calling for the government to establish improved nutritional standards for school lunches. These standards, enacted in 2012, set limits on sodium, added-sugar, and calorie content of lunches, and required more whole grains and fruits and vegetables. The goal, of course, was to address the growing problem of obesity.
Some of you will recall the pundits on cable news decrying the efforts of the “nanny state” to tell us how to feed our kids. These investigative reporters discovered mountains of inedible food piling up in the trash cans of school cafeterias after the disgustingly nutritious meals were soundly rejected by students across the nation, who instead were demanding that ketchup once again be considered a vegetable. Remember that? It turns out it was untrue.
A recent study of the effect of the new lunch standards found the following:
- The nutritional value of school meals increased substantially, from an average score of 57.9 out of 100 prior to the standards, to 81.5
- Sodium, refined sugar, and calorie content of meals decreased, while adequacy of whole grains and vegetables increased
- Participants in the lunch program ate healthier meals (average score 80.5) than their matched peers who did not participate, presumably bringing lunch from home (average score 65.1).
- The amount of food tossed away was significant; it was higher among elementary than among high school students, and higher when lunch was served earlier, but was similar to the amount tossed away before the standards were set
- School varied in their compliance with the standards, but among those with the most nutritious lunches, the participation rate of students buying those lunches was higher
- Also among schools, there was no association between the mean cost of preparing lunch and the nutritional value of the lunches served
In other words, the lunches were healthier, students seemed to like them as much, and they were no more expensive to prepare. Sounds like what most of us would consider a smashing success. So of course, in 2017, the US Department of Agriculture announced that it was revising the standards to weaken the requirements. This might make sense if the source of this data were a potentially biased advocacy organization of some kind, with a hidden nanny state agenda.
The study was actually done and published by – wait for it – the US Department of Agriculture itself.
Yes, the USDA is going against the findings of its own data to reverse what would appear to be a major public health accomplishment. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, in announcing the rollback, said “I wouldn’t be as big as I am today with chocolate milk.” No doubt.
Earlier this year, a lawsuit was filed by several states (including Minnesota, I am happy to say) to overturn the revised, more lax standards, saying the changes were capricious and not supported by evidence. Let’s hope that this time science and reason can prevail. Our kids could do with a little less ideology – and a little less chocolate milk.