WASHINGTON – Childhood obesity may increase if the US Department of Agriculture’s proposed changes to school meal standards become law, reversing progress made by the Obama administration, experts say.

New rules proposed in January would reduce the vegetables and fruits schools are required to serve for breakfast and lunch.

Students would also be able to buy a la carte items that currently do not meet requirements for calories, saturated fat, sugar or sodium — such as pizza, burgers and french fries — multiple times a week.

Monday marks the end of the two-month comment period for the proposal. The USDA will then decide whether to proceed with the rulemaking process.

The current standards were introduced with the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, a key initiative in former first lady Michelle Obama’s signature fight against childhood obesity. The act increased whole grains in school meals, ensured that kids ate fruits and vegetables every day, and tailored portion sizes and calorie counts for kids maintain a healthy weight.
The new regulations could mean kids could easily gain weight, said Mary Story, director at Duke University’s Global Health Institute.

“The administration is essentially allowing kids to have burgers and pizza every day instead of a balanced meal,” said Colin Schwartz, deputy director of legislative affairs at Center for Science in the Public Interest. “It’s a big disappointment and a huge blow to the school meals program.”

As children can receive up to 50 percent of their daily calories at school, school meals play a key role in showing them “what it means to have a healthy meal at reasonable portion sizes,” said Tracy Fox, president at Food Nutrition & Policy Consultants.

With nearly 19 percent of American children considered obese according to the Center for Disease and Control Prevention, school meals are a very powerful way to target poor diets and control obesity.

Under the standards introduced by the Obama administration, about 2 million cases of childhood obesity would be prevented, Schwartz said.

This “monumental progress would definitely be diminished” under the new regulations, he said.

Low-income children, who make up two-thirds of the 30 million eating school meals every day, tend to experience higher obesity rates and will therefore be disproportionately impacted by the changes, Fox said.

“Low-income kids are going to have even greater access to high-calorie, high-fat, high-sodium foods under the wrong impression of what healthy meals are,” she said.

The proposal is the second move by the Trump administration to roll back nutrition standards. Under a 2018 rule, the administration reduced the requirements for whole grains and allowed low-fat chocolate milk.

The changes would “simplify” meal services and provide schools with more “flexibilities,” said USDA Deputy Undersecretary Brandon Lipps.

But the proposal ignores that the meal requirements introduced by the Obama administration have been successful in improving kids’ health, as reported by the USDA itself in its 2019 School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study, the first comprehensive assessment of school meals since the implementation of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

The study showed that school meals became more than 40 percent healthier as kids ate more whole grains, fruits, greens and beans and, vice versa, less refined grains, empty calories and sodium.

“The standards don’t just prevent obesity, they can also reduce it,” Schwartz said.

Another reason provided by the USDA is that the new standards will help reduce food waste.
But while food waste continues to be a concern, it was not significantly impacted by the standards introduced by the Obama administration, the experts said.

“People complain that kids are wasting food at school because it doesn’t look or taste like what they are used to,” Fox said. “The reality is that it looks and tastes exactly like it should.”

Fox, who in the early 1990s used to review the comments filed in response to regulations proposed by the Department of Agriculture, said that the administration will most likely disregard the comments against the new proposal and “just march forward” with it.

But doing so would be taking “a step backwards for the health of America’s children,” Story said. “Schools are key players in reducing childhood obesity — we cannot solve this problem without having healthier school meals,” she said.