U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue is easing some of the restrictions former First Lady Michelle Obama worked to enforce in school lunch programs throughout the country.
A new interim rule will suspend requirements for sodium reduction and whole grains during the 2017-2018 school year. Additionally, 1-percent flavored milk will be permitted again in school cafeterias.
“I wouldn’t be as big as I am today without flavored milk,” Perdue said in remarks, according to ABC News.
“School Nutrition Association [SNA] is appreciative of Secretary Perdue’s support of school meal programs in providing flexibility to prepare and serve healthy meals that are appealing to students,” said SNA CEO Patricia Montague, CAE in a statement. “School nutrition professionals are committed to the students they serve and will continue working with USDA and the Secretary to strengthen and protect school meal programs,”
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, a 2010 law that was part of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative, was met with intense controversy in school districts. Many students disliked the lunches, leading to significant amounts of food being discarded.
“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,” said Perdue, a former governor of Georgia.
A study published in September of 2015 by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that participation in First Lady Michelle Obama’s school lunch program had dropped by 1.4 million children, from 62 percent to 58 percent, from school year 2010-2011 through the 2013-2014 academic year.
SNA and the School Superintendents Association (AASA) said the “overly prescriptive regulatory requirements” of Michelle Obama’s school lunch program have led to school districts being “forced to financially subsidize meals at the expense of educational programs.”
The organizations indicated that school meal regulations added 10 cents to the cost of every lunch and 27 cents to every breakfast, requiring local school districts to absorb $1.2 billion in additional costs in 2015 alone.
“To meet the rules, schools were provided only 6 additional cents for lunch, and while every breakfast must include an extra serving of fruit, schools were given no additional funds,” the groups said.
GAO observed that school fundraisers are failing as well since outside, “competitive” food is also subject to the rules of the former first lady’s meal program.
Perdue, however, denied his department is reducing nutritional standards.
“We’re not winding back any standards at all,” Perdue said. “We are just slowing down the process.”
“I applaud former first lady Michelle Obama for addressing those obesity problems in the past,” he said.
In fiscal year 2015, school food requirements cost school districts and states an additional $1.22 billion.