New study debunks argument for weakening healthy school lunch rules

Published on
January 14, 2020

That healthier eating is good for kids seems self-evident. Yet a 2010 federal law spearheaded by Michelle Obama to upgrade school meal standards for the first time since the 1960s set off a partisan furor. Under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, schools had to offer more fruits, vegetables and whole grains and cut back on salt and calories — longtime goals of public health advocates (to say nothing of many parents). But critics on the right blasted the legislation as “nanny state” overreach.

They said it would jack up costs, drive students away from school meal programs, and result in massive waste, because what kid would willingly eat a banana or pizza with low-fat cheese and whole-wheat crust?

The House Freedom Caucus listed the act as No. 1 on its list of 288 regulations it wanted President Trump to kill in his first 100 days in office. So it was no surprise when U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced he was relaxing the standards. “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,” he said in a 2017 press release. Promising to “make school meals great again,” the USDA asserted that so much food wound up getting dumped that some schools used it for compost. The rollback took effect last February.

Now a growing body of research, including the first national study of the impact of the Obama reforms, published today, points to their success and debunks the rationale for weakening them. The latest study is part of a comprehensive analysis commissioned by USDA, which found the reforms did not increase food waste. That’s consistent with earlier, local research. Nor did the reforms drive up costs. What did increase when schools served healthier food? Nutritional quality of the school breakfasts and lunches, student consumption of whole grains and vegetables, and participation in the National School Lunch Program — exactly what the act was designed to achieve.

In an editorial accompanying the study, Juliana Cohen, assistant professor at Merrimack College, and Marlene Schwartz, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut, note that policymakers are right to worry about the waste from school meals, but it has been a problem for decades. Under the Obama standards, students trashed about a third of vegetables, a quarter of fruit and grains, and less than a fifth of the entrees — roughly the same amount that students threw out the last time anyone measured, in 1991-92. Weaker nutrition standards won’t solve the problem, but other policy changes might help, the authors write.

For instance, school districts should consider later, longer lunch periods. Research suggests that students eat more when they have lunch during traditional lunch hours, yet more than a third of schools nationwide serve it before 11:00 a.m., the editorial notes. Further, kids need enough time to eat, yet there are no federal requirements on the length of lunch period. Students can have as little as 10 minutes to sit down and eat, especially if they have to endure long cafeteria lines. The editorial also points out that elementary school students often scarf down lunch so they can go out and play. Scheduling recess before lunch might encourage cleaner plates.

And as every parent knows, kids eat more when they like the food. To reduce waste, school districts need to make sure the food tastes good to young palates. The editorial offers guidance: Districts can provide healthier versions of familiar, culturally appropriate foods, let students taste-test new recipes, and team up with local chefs or culinary schools to whip up tasty, fun, nutritious fare.

The brouhaha over nutritional standards is a reminder that the federal meals programs were never solely about feeding kids. The government got involved with school lunches during the Great Depression as a way to bolster crop prices by purchasing farm surpluses and to stimulate employment by hiring women to cook while also addressing childhood hunger. But only in the past decade has school food become a partisan battleground. If policymakers are serious about improving the National School Breakfast and National School Lunch programs, here’s a suggestion: Take politics off the menu.