Looking for a vivid example of how money, special interests and industry lobbyists change the course of public policy in Washington? Look no further than the latest assault on rules designed to upgrade the nutritional quality of school lunch/breakfasts, first in effect under the Obama administration.
With all the hoopla surrounding the Trump impeachment/trial and the push by the House/Senate to reign in the administration with a War Powers Resolution, I suspect many people, the majority of which no longer have children in the K-12 system, missed the announcement in mid January.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is proposing to relax, even further, school meal nutrition requirements that were a signature accomplishment of former First Lady Michelle Obama when the Healthy, Hunger-Free Act was adopted in 2010 to improve the meals fed daily to some 30 million students nation-wide. Two thirds of these students are from low-income and food challenged families.
As a simplified explanation, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act basically requires schools to introduce fruits, green leafy vegetables, whole grains, skim or low-fat milk, less starchy items (like potatoes), cut trans fats from all menus and offer less meat. It includes setting limits on calories in school lunch and breakfast food offerings. The law also requires healthier snacks from school vending machines.
The recently unveiled new rules would reduce the requirements for vegetables and fruits, and cut back on whole grain requirements. The new rules further delay changes to sodium restrictions and allows students to choose more pizza, burgers and fries.
No surprises here. This is not the first time under President Trump that the nutrition standards for school food have come under attack. Prior to 2010, school food nutrition rules had not been assessed and changed in 15 years. When discussion started under Obama, critics bemoaned what they claimed was a “nanny state” attitude by the administration. Yet if we look at some history on this issue, the expansion of the school lunch program and accompanying nutrition requirements really started under President Richard Nixon, who recognized then that the food presented by schools was often times the only nutritional meals some students would see. Studies then and now document the correlation between learning and nutritional deficiencies.
It certainly is nothing new to watch the current administration roll back rules from the Obama administration – an almost maniacal preoccupation of Trump. Just look, for instance, at the over 100 environmental regulations either blocked or severely weakened in the past three years, the vast majority of which were developed under President Obama, although some reach back to prior administrations. Some of those rollbacks are now being challenged in court.
The most recent attack on the improved nutritional guidelines for schools is the third attempt by the current administration. As soon as he was named in 2017 as USDA Director, Sonny Perdue, with a background in the farming community, made it his mission to undo the rules. Lobbyists for the potato industry (who wanted potatoes to be allowed as a substitute for fruits), representatives of the frozen food industry and food companies, along with the meat lobby, have been demanding that the rules be relaxed. Among the critics of the current rules is the School Nutrition Association (SNA), which some point out has as its strongest supporters members of the food industry.
In 2017, the USDA announced that they would be slowing down the implementation of sodium restrictions as part of he 2010 act. Then, in 2018, the department issued a relaxation of some rules, cutting in half the whole-grain requirements, allowing for more refined grains. Changes also included allowing flavored milks rather than just non-fat versions. One critic of the changes said that the changes were tantamount to handing each kid a can of soda.
The rationale that the Trump administration is using on the most recent changes is that we have to find a balance between nutrition and what is “palatable” for students and that there has been too much food waste under the Obama rules because students just throw their lunches away.
We all know we are dealing with an administration that pays little respect to facts, so no one should be shocked that a 2016 report released in the journal JAMA Pediatrics showed that school childrens' health ratings have gone up substantially (almost double) from what they used to be, student participation in the food program remained essentially unchanged and food waste has held steady from what it was before the 2010 act was adopted. A similar study of eight school districts, done by the U.S. Government Accounting Office, showed what I consider a minor drop in participation and not a great increase in food waste.
The new rule changes (150 pages) have just been submitted to the Federal Register where all such items must be posted for public view and open for comment for 60 days. So if you are inclined to weigh in to help stop the madness, I recommend going to the following website – federalregister.gov. It is not difficult to find the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed rules and there are instructions on the site for how to add your comments, either online or through a written letter.
Should you doubt the value of getting involved in this, I leave you with this nugget from presidential history. President Ronald Reagan attempted to undo part of the school nutrition standards, including proposing (at the urging of industry lobbyists) to have ketchup classified as a vegetable, to skirt requirements then. The nation-wide blowback was so intense that he withdrew his proposed rule change.
SIDENOTE: Absentee ballots should start arriving this month for the presidential primary on the March 10 ballot. Often lost in the conversation are the local issues that will appear on the same ballot.
In the local area, we will see a millage renewal request in Bloomfield Township, a school bond issue request for the Birmingham Schools district and a request for renewal of .2-mill tax benefitting the Detroit Institute of Art.
Thanks to voter approval in 2018 of the proposal to increase participation in elections, we now have “no reason” absentee ballot opportunity.
Take the time now to call your local clerk's office and request an application for an absentee ballot to be mailed to you.
Local clerks can be reached at the following phone numbers: Birmingham – 248.530.1802; Bloomfield Hills – 248.530.1403; and Bloomfield Township – 248.433.7702.
There simply is no excuse for not participating this March or in the August and November elections.