In the U.S., over 30 million students consume at least one meal in school every day. With such broad reach, strong standards for healthy, high-quality food can have a significant impact on the health of the nation’s children. Yet a new proclamation by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture takes a different route, partially rolling back the stronger standards in place since 2012.
School foods have come a long way, receiving a complete makeover in 2012 when the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) effectively increased the availability of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables; removed trans fats; and set grade-specific limits on total calories and sodium in meals. Under these standards, all grains must be 50 percent or more whole grain, and sodium limits were scheduled to drop over the next three years. In elementary school lunches for example, this would have decreased the current 1,230 milligram sodium limit to 935 milligrams beginning this July—with a final target of 640 milligrams by year 2022.
However on May 2, 2017 the new U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue signed a proclamation to ease these standards—allowing states to grant exemptions for serving whole-grain rich products, and delaying any of the upcoming requirements to lower sodium levels until after 2020. In a USDA press release, Perdue said the move is a result of “years of feedback” from schools regarding challenges meeting the guidelines, and reports of students “wasting their meals.” Patricia Montague from the School Nutrition Association joined Perdue at the signing, commending the action for supporting “flexibility” to “serve meals that are both nutritious and palatable.”
So where’s the evidence behind these decisions? Since HHFKA went into effect, there have been anecdotal reports of school meals ending up in the trash, claims of decreased program participation with increased operating costs, as well as concerns over difficulty in meeting the new standards. A 2014 New England Journal of Medicine perspective by Baidal & Taveras examined these various claims.
Additionally, in a study where plate waste data was collected among 1,030 students both before and after the new standards went into effect, researchers did not find an increase in average food wasted per person.  In fact, the research by Cohen et al. found a decrease in vegetable waste, and an increase in fruit and vegetable consumption. Other research by Cohen et al. on the palatability of school meals found that collaborating with professionally trained chefs to improve the taste of healthy food significantly increased fruit and vegetable consumption.  This trial also confirmed the importance of repeated exposures to new school foods.
“Children go to school to learn—the food they are served should provide them the maximal opportunity to make sure their stomach and their brains are working together,” said Dr. Eric Rimm, senior author of these studies and a Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. “Serving healthier food on a budget can be a challenge, but we shouldn’t give up on the healthier standards just because it is harder than serving pizza every day. What our kids learn to eat in school will stay with them their whole lives. We didn’t learn to read or write in a week so like these basic skills, learning to eat healthy takes time and perseverance. Let’s not give up on the health of the next generation.”
In 2015, the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service announced data showing 95 percent of schools were successfully meeting the updated HHFKA standards.  When the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project surveyed nearly 500 school nutrition directors in 2016, four in 10 said they faced few or no ongoing obstacles meeting updated lunch standards, but sodium and whole grains were the most commonly cited challenges. Still, 84 percent of directors reported rising or stable revenue, with equipment and labor costs the most frequently raised financial concerns (only rarely reporting concerns relating to factors of food costs or student participation). The report also found that most programs used at least three strategies to encourage students to eat nutritious meals, and that holding taste tests and “redistributing uneaten, sealed foods” were effective ways to reduce food waste. 
“The standards may be a challenge for some school lunch providers, but many schools are meeting these challenges,” said Dr. Walter Willett, Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. “The solution should be to help the programs that need help, not to lower the bar for the quality of food provided to our children.”
It’s important to highlight that along with HHFKA, the related Smart Snacks in School regulation also covers any food and drinks sold outside of mealtimes—from vending machines to school stores. Given the broad population reach of these policies, a 2015 simulation by Harvard’s CHOICES Project found that implementation of Smart Snacks alone would prevent 345,000 cases of childhood obesity in 2025—with a projected net savings to society of $4.56 in obesity-related health care costs for each dollar invested in the program.  The study also points out that the improvements in nutrition standards for both school meals and snacks make the HHFKA “one of the most important national obesity prevention policy achievements in recent decades.”
- Cohen, J., et al. Impact of the New U.S. Department of Agriculture School Meal Standards on Food Selection, Consumption, and Waste. Am J Prev Med. 2014;46(4):388-94.
- Cohen, J., Richardson, S., Cluggish, S., Parker E., Catalano, P., Rimm, E. Effects of Choice Architecture and Chef-Enhanced Meals on the Selection and Consumption of Healthier School Foods: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Pediatr.2015 May;169(5):431-7.
- USDA Food and Nutrition Service. (2015, May 6). Statement from Secretary Vilsack on New Data Showing the Vast Majority of Schools Now Meet the Updated Meals Standards. Accessed May 2, 2017 at https://www.fns.usda.gov/pressrelease/2015/012815.
- Kid’s Safe & Healthful Foods Project. (2016). School Meal Programs Innovate to Improve Nutrition. A report from The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Accessed May 2, 2017 at http://www.pewtrusts.org/~/media/assets/2016/12/school_meal_programs_innovate_to_improve_student_nutrition.pdf.
- Gortmaker, S. L., Wang, Y. C., Long, M. W., Giles, C. M., Ward, Z. J., Barrett, J. L., … & Cradock, A. L. Three interventions that reduce childhood obesity are projected to save more than they cost to implement. Health Affairs. 2015, 34(11), 1932-1939.