Lawmakers, scientists, parents, educators, and public health advocates — including American Heart Association, American Public Health Association, FoodCorps, MomsRising, and National Education Association — recently filed an amicus brief to oppose the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s decision to weaken nutrition standards for school meals.
The groups, which are represented by Earthjustice, have long advocated for healthy school meals that promote children’s health and academic performance, preparing them for life-long success, have thus filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting a return to science-backed standards that protect children from serious health problems, including heart disease and diabetes.
USDA’s new standards conflict both with extensive nutrition science and with the government’s own recommendations for a healthy diet. In 2012, USDA issued strong, science-based nutrition standards for school meals that required a gradual decrease in sodium content to appropriate levels and an increase in whole grains. Last December, USDA issued the new rule weakening school nutrition standards that would allow schools to serve less healthy meals, locking in unhealthy levels of salt and fewer whole grains.
In the United States, one in three children are on track to develop diet-related diseases in their lifetime, and for children of color, it’s one in two. The school food programs are some of the most significant public health programs in the country, serving 5 billion lunches and 2.5 billion breakfasts to 30 million children. The programs are especially important to under-resourced children; indeed, about 75% of school lunches and 85% of school breakfasts were provided free or at a reduced price to children living in low-income households. And as the stronger nutrition standards were implemented in participating schools, disparities in the quality of school meals have begun to disappear.
USDA attempted to justify the rollback rule by arguing that students might find healthy meals unappealing and throw them away. But USDA’s own findings, as well as independent studies, show that children did not throw more food away under the 2012 standards. In addition to promoting children’s health directly, school meals serve important educational purposes by helping children develop healthy eating habits and providing them with the nutrition they need to succeed academically. Scientific literature confirms that children’s food preferences are shaped by the foods they consume.
American Heart Association, American Public Health Association, FoodCorps, MomsRising, and National Education Association urge USDA to reexamine the evidence and adopt nutrition standards for school meals that are consistent with science-backed recommendations. A decision about the legality of the rollback rule by the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland could come before the end of the year.
“Since the mid-twentieth century, through multiple laws and amendments, Congress has been crystal clear: school meals must reflect up-to-date and reliable nutrition science,” said Alexis Andiman, Senior Associate Attorney with Earthjustice. “By departing from the science, USDA is violating the law and jeopardizing the health of the nearly 30 million kids who eat school meals every day.”
“USDA’s decision to weaken the standards — despite overwhelming opposition — threatens the decades of progress we’ve made to ensure children receive healthy meals at school,” said Mark Schoeberl, Executive Vice President of Advocacy for the American Heart Association. “Failing to meet science-based sodium and whole grain standards for school meals puts our children’s health in jeopardy. It is in the best interest of our children for schools nationwide to follow science-based nutrition standards to ensure the health and academic success of all students.”
“Many of the preventable public health challenges our nation faces today — including growing rates of chronic disease and obesity among our nation’s youth — start with a lack of access to healthy foods,” said Georges C. Benjamin, MD, Executive Director of the American Public Health Association. “The healthier school meals rules are an important way for our nation to address nutritional shortfalls in children’s diets. Rolling back these standards is a step in the wrong direction.”
“Every mom knows how important a balanced, nutritious lunch is to children’s health, well-being and success in school,” said Donna Norton, vice president of MomsRising, the online and on-the-ground organization of more than one million mothers and their families. “We need our government to protect children by ensuring that meals served in schools adhere to the most current science-based nutritional standards. There’s simply no excuse for the Trump administration to weaken those standards and allow schools to serve children unhealthy meals with too much salt and not enough whole grains. At this time when preventable problems like childhood obesity and diseases like hypertension and diabetes are much too prevalent, we need our government to help give children a healthy start. America’s moms urge the courts to step in.”
“Educators know all too well that hungry kids can’t learn. And with one in five American children living in poverty, too often the only nutritious meals some students get each day are at school. That is why the recent efforts by the Trump Administration to roll back the school nutrition guidelines are plain wrong,” said National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García. “Under the Trump rule, school meals could contain 50 percent more sodium than what scientists consider safe. Students could get less than half of the recommended whole grains children need. Our students deserve better, which is why we are joining this effort to demand the Trump Administration follow the law requiring school nutrition standards to be based on sound nutritional science. And we will continue to fight for healthy school meals, so our students can succeed in and outside of the classroom.”
Written and prepared by Earth Justice.