The proposed changes raised concerns among health advocates, who worried they posed a threat to students’ long-term health.
A federal court has blocked a Trump administration attempt to reduce the required nutritional standards of food served to 30 million children under the National School Lunch Program.
The District Court of Maryland Southern Division ruled on Monday that the rollback proposed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2018 violated Administrative Procedure Act, a law regulating how federal governments agencies develop and implement rules.
The rule reduced the whole-grain requirement that school meals must meet, while also allowing schools to serve foods with higher sodium levels. In striking down the rule, the court found that the Agriculture Department made changes to the standards between its interim rule, first proposed in November 2017, and its final rule, released in December 2018, without seeking appropriate public feedback and in such a way that violated the law.
The interim rule delayed the timeline for schools to gradually reduce the sodium content of meals over a 10-year period until they meet the “final sodium target.” It also maintained the requirement that 100% of the grains offered in meals be “whole grain-rich.”
In its final rule, however, the agency eliminated the final sodium target altogether—meaning schools would be free to serve saltier foods in the long term—and required that only half of the weekly grains offered in school meals meet the “whole grain-rich,” mandate, while the other half could be enriched grains.
Agriculture Secretary David Perdue said in 2018 that the proposed changes were intended to give students meals that were both “nutritious and satisfying” and provide schools and manufacturers the “common-sense flexibilities” to meet the requirements.
Perdue said schools faced challenges serving meals that met the health requirements but were also appetizing to students. “If kids are not eating what is being served, they are not benefiting, and food is being wasted,” Perdue said. “We all have the same goals in mind—the health and development of our young people. USDA trusts our local operators to serve healthy meals that meet local preferences and build bright futures with good nutrition.”
The changes drew significant criticism from health advocates who worried they posed a threat to students’ long-term health. More than 90% of children exceeded daily recommendations for sodium intake between 2009 and 2012. Consuming high levels of sodium can lead to higher blood pressure in the long run, which increases the risk of stroke, heart failure, osteoporosis, stomach cancer, and kidney disease. Whole grains, which are full of fiber and other important nutrients, such as potassium and magnesium, are also healthier than enriched grains, which lack fiber and lose vitamins and nutrients during processing.
These advocates slammed the USDA’s final rule and accused the agency of putting children’s health in danger.
The USDA’s decision “threatens to reverse our progress toward ensuring our nation’s children receive healthy meals at school that help them attain better long-term health and academic success,” the American Heart Association said in 2018. “If the concern truly was to provide those few schools experiencing challenges with more ‘flexibility,’ the more responsible approach would have been for U.S.D.A. to provide more technical assistance to these institutions so they could offer healthier food choices.”
Other critics of the rollback included the American Public Health Association, the National Education Association, and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
Democracy Forward, the legal nonprofit organization that filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Healthy School Food Maryland, celebrated the court’s ruling.
“The Trump administration’s unlawful rollback of important school meal nutrition standards jeopardized children’s access to the nutritious foods they need to stay healthy,” Democracy Forward Executive Director Anne Harkavy said in a statement. “This victory shows, once again, that the Trump administration’s pattern of unlawfully shutting the public out of policy changes that impact their health can’t — and won’t — stand.”
The attempted rollback of sodium and whole grain standards isn’t the only effort by the Trump administration to undo Obama-era nutritional standards. In January, USDA proposed a rule that seeks to roll back nutritional guidelines promoted by former First Lady Michelle Obama. The new measure would allow schools to offer less fruit during breakfast, provide more flexibility to decide which vegetables to include in meals, and expand the definition of what counts as a snack.
That rule—which was unveiled on Mrs. Obama’s birthday—drew condemnation from nutritionists, who worried unhealthy foods like potatoes would be substituted for green vegetables and that high-calorie, fattening foods like pizza and hamburgers could be considered snacks. The proposed rule drew more than 36,000 public comments, many of which were negative.