Jayden’s lunch at Oxon Hill High School in Maryland on Oct. 26, 2018. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
The U.S. Agriculture Department has good news it seemingly wants nobody to know about.
On April 23, the USDA released its “School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study,” with no news release, no fanfare. The link on the USDA website disappeared for several days after that and was altogether inaccessible before reappearing under a different URL.
The USDA says the study was “the first nationally representative, comprehensive assessment” of school meals after the implementation of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, a key initiative of the Obama administration that mandated healthy changes in food at schools.
The best news was that the Healthy Eating Index (HEI-2010), a multicomponent measure of diet quality, shot up dramatically for both school-provided breakfasts and lunches.
For the 2009-2010 school year, the score for breakfast was an abysmal 49.6 out of 100 (even lower than the overall American average of 59), rising to 71.3 by the 2014-2015 school year. In that same time frame, the lunch score went from 57.9 to 81.5. The score for whole grains in school meals went from 25 to 95 percent of the maximum score, and the score for greens and beans rose from 21 to 72 percent.
In addition, there was greater participation in school meal programs at schools with the highest healthy food standards. And the study found food waste, a troubling national problem in the lunchroom, remained relatively unchanged.
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The 52-page summary of study findings is chockablock with other good news, so why isn’t Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue crowing about it?
The USDA did not respond directly when asked about the rollout beyond a statement that said it conducts studies like this to inform choices on policies and program operations, and that “we intend to use it to make these great programs even better.”
“It seems fairly outside of the norm for a federal agency to release a study that directly contradicts what the administration’s position is,” explained Elizabeth Balkan, food waste director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “That’s why it was released very quietly.”
In December, Perdue announced the USDA was weakening school nutrition standards for whole grain, nonfat milk and sodium, all of which had been tightened during the Obama administration. He cited food waste and nonparticipation as key rationales for the shift.
“If kids are not eating what is being served, they are not benefiting, and food is being wasted,” he said at the time.
About two-thirds of the 30 million children who eat school meals every day qualify as low-income and are getting meals free or for a reduced price. Low-income kids are disproportionately affected by obesity and are less likely to be fed healthy meals at home, so the nutritional makeup of those school meals is impactful. Kids can get more than half of their daily calories from school meals.
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“As a nutrition and public-health policymaker, what’s extraordinary is for a policy to have that large an effect, to affect tens of millions of school kids. If you consider the crisis that we face — people living shorter, less healthy lives — solutions usually take decades,” said Jerry Mande, a senior USDA official during the Obama administration who was involved in developing the standards. “Within two years there’s a dramatic change. This demonstrates the power the USDA has to change the way kids eat. We should be doubling down on this.”
Advocates say the push to roll back stricter requirements is consistent with President Trump’s overall mission of deregulation.
“Waste was the smokescreen,” said Margo Wootan, vice president for nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “There have been several studies that showed that food waste hadn’t increased.”
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Wootan enumerates many things that can be done — beyond making food saltier, fattier or more processed — to reduce food waste in schools. Have recess before lunch to work up hunger and don’t schedule lunch times midmorning before kids are peckish. Cut up apples instead of offering them whole. Offer taste tests and share tables and give students opportunities to provide more input. Perhaps most importantly, adopt an “offer versus serve” approach at elementary schools and middle schools (it is required at high schools). This means that students can select three out of five meal components and avoid things they don’t like and are likely to discard.
“The Trump administration wants to tick off the maximum number of regulations it can say it rolled back,” Wootan said. “It’s another tick mark on the deregulatory agenda.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 13.7 million, or 18.5 percent, of children aged 2 to 19 are obese. That percentage is higher for Hispanics (25.8 percent) and non-Hispanic blacks (22 percent).
The American Medical Association changed the term obesity from a condition into a disease in 2013. The CDC says obesity puts people at an increased risk for all causes of death, but it is linked to high blood pressure and cholesterol, Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke and some cancers.
The School Nutrition Association, the trade group for school food-service manufacturers and school food professionals, has commended Perdue for seeking regulatory flexibility.
Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the association, says that although the study findings are very positive, the new standards have presented challenges for school districts.
“We’re seeing a lot of schools struggle with cultural preferences with students. Like white rice — some cultures don’t eat brown rice. And in the Southwest, there are students who are not familiar with a whole-grain tortilla.”
She also says that participation in school lunch programs has dropped, from 32 million to 30 million, under the new standards, and that as a result, costs per student have increased.
Schools are forced to rely more heavily on a la carte items (a sandwich, rather than the full meal with fruits, veggies and milk) to stay solvent.
Schools have also looked to restaurant practices, offering more customizable meals such as burritos made to order, to boost participation, and catering programs on the side to bolster revenue. Bottom line, she says: The cost of preparing the new style of meals frequently exceeds the cost of reimbursement.
However, that runs counter to the study’s finding that healthier meals did not impose a greater financial burden.
“There was no significant association between reported cost per NSLP (National School Lunch Program) lunch and the nutritional quality of the meals,” the study said. “That is, mean reported costs per NSLP lunch were not significantly higher in schools that prepared more-nutritious meals . . . than in schools that produced the least-nutritious meals.”
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