What’s Next for Healthier School Meals? We Asked the USDA.

Over a decade ago, the Obama Administration passed a revolutionary set of standards to improve nutrition in America’s public schools—changes that included requiring schools to serve more fresh fruits and vegetables, reduce sodium over time, and only serve pasta, bread, and crackers that were at least 50 percent whole grains.

Since then, multiple studies have found that school meals got much healthier, that kids didn’t throw more food in the trash, and that a significant number of children from low-income families became measurably healthier as a result.

Still, the standards continue to stir controversy, and over the past several years, debates over specific elements have been walked back by policy makers and complicated by the pandemic.

Under President Trump, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue rolled back some of the standards by reducing requirements on whole grains, allowing schools to serve chocolate and strawberry flavored (i.e., sweetened) low-fat milk, and giving schools more time to meet sodium limits, which had been set to gradually decrease in phases. In the spring of 2020, a court ruled those changes were illegal.

Then COVID-19 arrived and school nutrition departments were in crisis. To help them provide meals to the many children who depended on them quickly, at home, and in the face of unprecedented challenges, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) loosened multiple requirements. Two years later, most kids are back in the cafeteria, but schools are still working with serious supply chain issues and continuously fluctuating attendance rates.

It’s within that context that, last week, Biden’s USDA issued its first announcement on nutrition standards. While many likely expected Ag Secretary Vilsack to be bullish about getting back to the rules he had put in place during his first term in the role, the agency instead issued “transitional standards” for the next two school years. The changes leave the prior administration’s decision on flavored milk intact, nudge the whole grain requirements back up slightly, and bring the sodium requirements down, but not as low as the original standards required.

The School Nutrition Association (SNA), which represents cafeteria workers and has long pushed for rollbacks, praised the USDA for recognizing the “tremendous challenges” that still exist. Health advocacy groups such as the American Heart Association and Center for Science in the Public Interest also issued statements of support for the temporary rules while urging the agency to move toward getting the standards back on track.

stacy dean, usdaStacy Dean, the deputy undersecretary for USDA’s Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, is at the center of this important discussion. And she sees the transitional standards as a first step in a “stakeholder process” intended to continue the momentum.

“We see USDA and our programs as having a key role to play in improving child health. It’s top of mind for us that we need to make progress there,” Dean explained in a recent interview with Civil Eats. Because the agency is aiming to issue a proposed rule on permanent changes to the standards by fall 2022, she said, “This engagement process is very timely and important. We’re asking all of our partners to use their convening power to pull folks together in conversation and in collaboration to talk about what the future of this program should look like.”

Dean—who was previously at the Office of Management and Budget and the nonpartisan think-tank The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities—has been in the role since January 2021. Here, she shares more details on how she’s eager to hear from parents and children—the people who will be most impacted—how the USDA is thinking about the practical implementation of nutrition standards, and how the work dovetails with the agency’s other priorities on climate and equity.

The USDA cited pandemic-related challenges in making this recent set of changes temporary. Does the agency believe these particular pieces need more work, in general?

When the standards were set in 2012, they were set to take place over many years . . . and [on sodium], they predicted an ability to move toward the sodium reduction levels. There was a lot of pushback from certain stakeholders around how feasible it was going to be to hit those. I don’t think there was debate about the target; there was debate about the feasibility of hitting the target. There was less back and forth around whole grains. And there have been Congressional riders that have overridden the standards with respect to flavored milk. I lump them all into one category, but there has been policy debate and intervention across the three, including the proposed rule from the prior administration and the lawsuits.






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