It wasn’t until the Trump administration recently rolled back nutritional standards for school lunches that I became aware of an organization called the School Nutrition Assn., which sounds like the sort of group that fights to protect our kids from the ravages of junk food.
So it was with more than a little disappointment, but not necessarily surprise, that I discovered the more than 58,000 members of the School Nutrition Assn. include such healthy-living stalwarts as Domino’s Pizza, PepsiCo, Kellogg’s and Kraft Heinz Co., as well as just about every other major player in the processed-food industry.
The organization praised the Trump administration for its decision to ease nutritional standards put in place by then-President Obama. This includes eliminating ambitious long-term goals for reducing sodium in school lunches and allowing greater use of refined grains rather than healthier whole grains.
“School nutrition professionals have made tremendous progress in improving student diets, but the pace and degree of menu changes under updated nutrition standards were more than some students would accept,” Gay Anderson, president of the School Nutrition Assn., said in a statement.
She expressed her appreciation to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue “for finding solutions to address the concerns of schools and students. This rule will entice more students to eat healthy school meals.”
For his part, Perdue said the Agriculture Department “is committed to serving meals to kids that are both nutritious and satisfying.”
“These common-sense flexibilities provide excellent customer service to our local school nutrition professionals while giving children the world-class food service they deserve,” he said.
In fact, these flexibilities make school lunches less healthy and cater to the interests of businesses that see heftier profits in mass-producing fattier, sweeter and saltier foods.
Margo Wootan, vice president of nutrition for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said food manufacturers make more money if they provide the same high-calorie, high-sodium foods to schools that they provide to supermarkets, rather than having separate production lines.
“It’s cheaper and easier to sell processed foods,” she told me. “This action by the Trump administration is a deregulatory agenda being applied on behalf of businesses to something that didn’t need to be fixed.”
Responding to the nation’s obesity epidemic, then-First Lady Michelle Obama made nutrition and exercise her pet causes. She launched a campaign called Let’s Move and spoke frequently to young people about the need to eat well and get fit.
Obama also spearheaded efforts to improve the nutritional quality of school lunches, working in conjunction with the Agriculture Department to set new standards for foods served.
In 2011, a senior department official attended the School Nutrition Assn.’s annual convention and praised the organization for getting behind measures to promote healthier meals.
“The School Nutrition Assn. is a strong partner in the Obama administration's effort to ensure that our nation's schoolchildren are provided the most nutritious food possible,” Janey Thornton, who served as deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, said at the time.
The School Nutrition Assn. appears no less keen to be viewed as a strong partner for the Trump administration, which has made rolling back Obama-era rules and regulations an obsession.
Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the organization, told me that the group’s support for less-stringent nutritional standards reflects the experience of school districts in trying to get kids to improve their eating habits.
Too often, she said, kids would reject the healthier meals being served for taste or cultural reasons. Whole-grain tortillas didn’t go over big in the Southwest, Pratt-Heavner said, just as whole-grain grits were a tough sell in the South.
“Kids were not accustomed to all the changes,” she said.
Wootan at the Center for Science in the Public Interest called this a smokescreen. She said only about 15% of schools applied for waivers from the whole-grain requirement.
“That means 85% of the schools were completely successful in serving the healthier foods,” Wootan observed.
She also said studies have found that complaints from kids about school lunches, and the volume of food being thrown out, haven’t changed since the new standards were put in place.
“Of course there have been complaints from children, but not more than before,” Wootan said. “Kids have been complaining about school lunches since the 1940s.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American kids consume an average of 3,300 milligrams of sodium daily — way more than the recommended 2,300 mg. Too much sodium can contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease and other ailments.
Conversely, the CDC says, kids consume too few whole grains, which can reduce the risk of chronic disease.
Roughly a third of all young people in this country are overweight or obese. Get your head around that stat. One out of every three American kids has a weight problem, in some cases a very serious weight problem.
The obesity rate among kids ages 6 to 19 is 20%, which is to say that 1 out of every 5 kids carries a dangerous amount of body fat and faces a significant risk of Type 2 diabetes, cancer and heart disease.
Healthier school lunches don’t solve the problem, but they go a long way toward breaking the cycle of poor eating habits and addressing dietary shortcomings.
If kids are turning up their noses at foods that have less salt or more whole grains, the answer isn’t to cave and give them crappier meals. The answer is to use this as a teachable moment and to help them understand why certain foods are better for them.
Perdue, President Trump’s Agriculture secretary, declared last year that he was going to “make school meals great again.”
The School Nutrition Assn. said then as well that it was behind him 100%.