US students had been adjusting to healthier school lunches. Now the USDA is reversing course, giving them more sugar and fewer whole grains.
More sugary chocolate milk, fewer whole grains, and around 300 extra milligrams of salt — these are just some of the ways the Trump Administration has relaxed school-lunch nutrition rules put in place during the Obama Administration.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who heads the US Department of Agriculture (the agency that sets school meal rules), has argued that the healthier meals fed to kids since 2012 have led some picky eaters to refuse more of the food offered at school.
"It doesn’t do any good to serve nutritious meals if they wind up in the trash can," Perdue said in a statement posted on the USDA website in November.
But recent studies suggest that's not true, and that kids are now eating more vegetables and taking in less saturated fat at school (though the healthier lunches did take some getting used to).
It costs more to feed kids healthier meals, however. And with the administration set on major budget cuts — including spending less on programs that feed children, and slashing billions from their 2018 education budget — the cost-cutting effects of feeding children cheaper, processed foods may be a primary reason for the rollback.
Here's what kids across the country can get in the school lunch line under the Trump administration's relaxed rules:
Under the Obama-era rules, all breads, cereals and pastas served to schoolchildren had to be at least 50% whole grain.
But the USDA now says that feedback from students and schools indicates they're having a hard time finding "the full range of products they need and that their students enjoy in whole grain-rich form." (The USDA did not respond to Business Insider's request for comment for this story.)
Whole grains are rich in fiber and protein, as well as B vitamins and minerals, which are good sustenance for your muscles, digestive system, tissues and bones. What's more, the United States Department of Agriculture's website explains that whole grains are important for helping young, growing minds "feel full longer so they stay alert to concentrate at school."
In contrast, refined grains, which have been stripped of their nutrient-rich outer shells, get processed more quickly in the body and turned into sugar, which can cause people to overeat and promote weight gain.
Long-term studies have shown that more refined carbohydrate consumption can also lead to diabetes and heart disease. Eating whole grains, on the other hand, can prevent these problems.
The Obama Administration's nutrition rules were designed to essentially cut current salt levels in school lunches in half by 2022.
Both low- and high-salt diets are associated with increased mortality. Recent studies suggest the ideal sodium consumption level for kids is around 3 to 4 grams of sodium per day. Current school lunches contain about 1.2-1.4 grams of salt, and the Trump administration is keeping that the same.
Nutrition experts say the target set in the Obama-era rules might have gone too far.
"The sodium requirement may have been too restrictive," Susan Gross, a child nutrition expert at Johns Hopkins, told Business Insider in an email.
Under the Obama-era rules, added sugar and flavoring was only permitted in skim milks, but now chocolate 1% is allowed, too.
But any carton of flavored milk, regardless of its fat content, isn't a good choice for kids.
More than half of US children in school today are on track to be obese by age 35. Gross said that sugary drinks at school may be contributing to that epidemic. A single carton of flavored milk adds about four teaspoons of sugar to a child's daily diet.
Part of the argument for relaxing the lunch nutrition rules, which were first established by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (rolled out nationwide in 2012), is that students weren't eating the healthier food offered at school. But studies show that's not true.
A 2014 study in the Journal of Child Nutrition & Management reported that schoolkids were eating more fiber and less saturated fat, while another in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine said they were consuming around 15% more fruits and vegetables. A third study in Childhood Obesity noted the nutrition changes "do not increase total plate waste."
The USDA is leaving in place the rules that require children getting federal assistance for school lunch to put at least some fruit or vegetables on their plate.
In August, reporting by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit news organization covering inequality in education, suggested that kids from low-income families living along the Mississippi Delta are genuinely excited about the food they're fed in free breakfast and lunch programs at school, such as apples and carrots.
According to the report, Shaw, Mississippi resident Betty Newson said her grandson "might get more the food he really needs" at school, but not at home.
Gross said that's a common situation nationwide.
"For some students, the only whole grains they consume may be those from foods received from supplement food programs such as school meals," she said.
A childhood diet high in processed foods has been associated with a higher likelihood of depression and anxiety later in life. A poor diet in the first years of a child's life can also increase their risk for behavioral and emotional problems.
But some research suggests making healthy diet changes can effectively prevent some depressive episodes, and that eating lots of fruit, vegetables, fish, and whole grains can reduce a person's risk for depression overall.
Researchers say the eating patterns that kids establish early in life typically follow them into adulthood.
As a group of Canadian researchers put it in 2007, "if children are to learn to prefer and select healthy foods, they need early, positive, repeated experiences with those foods."
One study showed that simply making lunch line offerings more nutritious (by serving more salads, fruits, and sandwiches instead of tacos and hamburgers) led students to consume 28% fewer grams of unhealthy food.
Considering that 20% of kids eat breakfast at school, and more than 90% get lunch there, the grains and sugar preferences they develop in the cafeteria likely shape the nutrition choices they'll make for life.