In a measure designed to reduce constraints on public education while enticing more students to consume school lunches, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue signed the USDA Commitment to School Meals proclimation at a ceremony at Catoctin Elementary School May 1.
The three-pronged initiative stops plans enacted by former President Barack Obama to increase nutritional standards involving whole grain, sodium and milk in upcoming school years. The proclamation allows school systems to keep the current standard making 50 percent of offerings for foods like pastas and biscuits whole grain, instead of increasing that mandate to make 100 percent of such foods whole grain.
Obama had also proposed a nearly 10 percent decrease in the amount of sodium in school breakfast along with a nearly 25 percent decrease in lunches by next school year, a mandate that will likewise be halted. Finally, the proclamation begins the process to allow all schools to serve flavored 1 percent milk, which USDA officials say children are more likely to consume than regular unflavored milk.
“We want to give them the flexibility to not only make them nutritious but palatable where the kids want to come in and enjoy a great school meal,” Perdue said during the ceremony in Leesburg.
Perdue had lunch with a group of Catoctin fifth-graders before signing the act. He said conversations with parents, school officials, nutritionists and students like these formed the basis of the new imitative. He also said it will help mitigate costs on schools while continuing measures to assure all public schools students have access to nutritious meals.
The USDA estimated additional school food requirements enacted by the Obama Administration, designed to increase nutrition and decrease childhood obesity, cost school districts and states an additional $1.22 billion in fiscal year 2015. At the same time, USDA leaders estimate more than 1 million students in the 50 million-pupil U.S. public school population no longer eat school meals at all since these standards were implemented in 2012.
Students that do purchase school meals don’t like the taste, so they end up discarding about a third of the food without eating it, said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), who was in Leesburg for the ceremony. Though the USDA reports around 99 percent of schools have implemented the current standards, he said they don’t do any good if the students don’t eat the food.
“This will provide flexibility to ensure that schools will serve nutritious meals that kids will really eat,” said Roberts, who chairs the Senate’s Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee. “If they don’t eat it, they go hungry, more hungry, then they’ll end up at a fast food franchise — nothing against fast food — but they’ll eat twice as much and that’s absolutely contrary to what we’re trying to do with nutritious meals.”
The proclamation was the first significant act by the department under Perdue. Confirmed to his position in an 87-11 Senate vote less than a week ago, the former two-term Georgia governor has been praised for his leadership skills and experience in agriculture. He has also drawn criticism for his record on environmental issues and been accused of prioritizing business interests ahead of the public good since being appointed to the position in January by President Donald Trump.
The criticism continued in Leesburg, as his appearance drew around two dozen protesters outside the school and condemnation from several local politicians. Many gathered outside Catoctin feared that the act will strip away nutritional standards that would most adversely hurt low income students.
In Loudoun County, the jurisdiction with the nation’s highest median household income, around 17 percent of the school district’s nearly 80,000-person student body is eligible for free or reduced lunch. This in turn means they are significantly less likely to have access to nutritional meals outside of school.
“We have a number of students here at Catoctin who can’t afford breakfast at home or have mom and dad bring them a good lunch to bring to school, so for those kids especially it’s critical that we give them nutritious meals while they’re in school,” said Loudoun County Supervisor Kristen Umstattd (D-Leesburg), whose daughter attended Catoctin. “I don’t want to see all our efforts as a country undermined by this administration.”
State Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D-33), whose district includes Catoctin Elementary, published an open letter to Loudoun County Public School Superintendent Eric Williams, calling the signing ceremony “a misguided public relations event to advertise a measure weakening federal nutrition standards for school lunches.”
“Hosting an event that celebrates degrading the nutritional value of our students’ meals should be an action that LCPS stands against, not one that it promotes through a staged photo-op,” wrote Wexton, who recently announced her campaign to run for Virginia’s 10th Congressional District seat.
Perdue dismissed these claims, saying the program didn’t degrade any standards and that school districts are welcome to adhere to restrictions above those of the federal government.
“We’re not unwinding or winding back any nutritional standards at all. We’re giving these professionals, these food service professionals, the flexibility to move as we get a healthy generation,” Perude said. “What the idea actually boils down to is local flexibility and trusting the people in the lunch rooms across America to do the right thing.”
Loudoun School Board Member Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin), who represents Catoctin Elementary School, also dismissed any claims this would weaken public school meals in Loudoun or anywhere else in the nation.
“It doesn’t seem realistic for the Secretary of the USDA to come out and say we’re going to make school lunches worse,” DeKenipp said. “The reality is we’re going to have more control over what were serving and that’s a good thing.”