The Trump administration is being criticized for rolling back some of the school lunch reforms passed in 2010.
The Washington Post offered this inaccurate headline: “More salt and less whole grain allowed.”
Schools are still allowed to serve as many whole grains as they wish, they just won’t be required to serve all whole grains. Under the new rules, only half of the rice and bread products will be required to be whole grain, instead of all products needing to be whole grain. This is a much-needed compromise. School lunch officials often see patterns—kids will eat the brown rice but they toss the whole wheat bun on burgers. Or they might like the quinoa and hate the whole wheat tortilla shell. These reforms give local school lunch officials the flexibility they desperately need when trying to feed picky kids the food kids prefer.
It’s also important to remember: schools aren’t required to comply with these new rules. If they want to follow the old rules, which are stricter and less flexible, they can do just that. This measure is only meant to give school lunch directors more flexibility and autonomy when developing menus.
But that hasn’t stopped the media from posting misleading headlines. For instance, NPR ran a similar headline to the Washington Post: “More Salt, Less Whole Grains”…except there’s absolutely no new rule banning whole grains or preventing a school nutrition director from limiting salt.
The goal in rolling back some of Michelle Obama’s strict school lunch rules is to return control back to local school lunch official so they can make the best decision for the particular demographic of kids attending their school and for the region they live in.
What’s also missing from the coverage of these reforms is the fact that the Trump administration (more specifically, the USDA, which oversees the federal school lunch program) isn’t the first to chip away at Michelle Obama’s favorite cause.
In fact, in February 2016–while Obama was still in office–Congress (specifically Republican Senator Pat Roberts and Democrat Senator Debbie Stabenow) eased school lunch restrictions so that schools could include fewer whole grains and extended by two years the time frame when schools needed to reduce salt levels in menus. And in 2104, several schools were allowed to opt out of the reforms—due to the fact that kids weren’t eating the “new and improved” food at all.
That’s another thing being glossed over. The 2010 school lunch reforms (ushered in by Michelle Obama) weren’t fully implemented until 2014. Almost immediately, schools began reporting massive food waste problems. Kids rejected the new food. The hashtag #thanksmichelleobama accompanying pictures of truly repulsive and hard to identify foods went viral, and in one shocking case, a school in LA county partnered with a local homeless shelter to give them the massive quantities of food that were going uneaten—the theory being: at least someone in need is eating it.
One Harvard study reported that 60 percent of vegetables and 40 percent of fruits were being tossed in the garbage, uneaten. At the time, environmentalists were silent on this huge food waste problem.
The government accountability office was eventually asked to assess the food waste problem and found it to be widespread—million of dollars annually wasted on uneaten food.
Of course none of this was reported by the press—likely in an effort to spare Michelle Obama the embarrassment that her reforms were a total disaster.
What’s going unreported this time around is that Trump’s school lunch reforms are being given a big thumbs up by the School Nutrition Association—the trade group that represents over 50,000 cafeteria professionals. These are the folks that are on the ground, cooking and serving food to kids each and every day. These are the people that can see what many bureaucrats in Washington seem to miss—kids simply aren’t eating Michelle’s “healthier food.” Something needed to be done.
And while these changes are being cast as a tragic rollback of healthy standards and a return of junk food to school cafeterias, this is hardly the case. Instead, these reforms will simply allow more local autonomy in creating menus that the kid will actually enjoy, and will allow for school lunch directors to account for things like regional tastes and for foods that are commonly grown in certain areas of the country.
The reforms will also allow school lunch directors to make the food served to kids more enjoyable. What kids enjoy eating was lost in the 2010 debate. But the inconvenient truth is: kids aren’t dumb and they aren’t devoid of taste buds. Yet, that’s precisely how kids were treated during Michelle Obama’s push for reforms. While trying to make food healthier (a noble goal, for sure), the Obama administration’s rules took away the very tools moms and lunch ladies have been using for decades to make vegetables taste good—butter, salt and maybe a little cheese.
I’m the mom of three kids. I don’t need a Ph.D. in nutrition to tell me that cheese makes broccoli more appealing. I don’t need to be a chef to know butter and salt make peas more delicious. I don’t need to be a corn farmer to know corn on the cob is always better with a small pat of butter and a sprinkling of salt. In some cultures, corn on the cob is smothered in mayonnaise and coated in cheese—that would definitely be banned by Michelle Obama’s rules.
No one is asking for fried okra (although, that’s a staple in many southern states) or for corn smothered in cream or for tempura-ed vegetables or for oily stir-fried Chinese vegetables. Fruit doesn’t have to be candied or macerated with sugar or put over ice cream. But a small amount of fat, salt, cheesem other seasonings and common accompaniments that make vegetables taste good to kids should not be banned.
For school lunch regulars, these changes are a good thing. Not only will they be getting a healthy meal, but they may enjoy it as well. That's a more palatable way to teach nutrition–healthy food can taste good too.