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Chocolate milk is heading back to school, thanks to Trump and Congress

  • Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue takes a bite of his salad as he has lunch with students in the cafeteria at Catoctin Elementary School in Leesburg, Va., Monday, May 1, 2017. After lunch Perdue unveiled a new rule on school lunches as the Trump administration and other Republicans press for flexibility after eight years of the Obama's emphasis on health eating. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) Carolyn Kaster

  • Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue talks with students in the cafeteria at Catoctin Elementary School in Leesburg, Va., Monday, May 1, 2017. After he unveiled a new rule on school lunches as the Trump administration and other Republicans press for flexibility after eight years of the Obama's emphasis on health eating. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) Carolyn Kaster

  • Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue eats lunch with students at the Catoctin Elementary School in Leesburg, Va., Monday, May 1, 2017. Perdue unveiled a new rule on school lunches as the Trump administration and other Republicans press for flexibility after eight years of the Obama's emphasis on health eating. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) Carolyn Kaster



McClatchy Washington Bureau
Monday, May 01, 2017

WASHINGTON — Chocolate milk is coming back on the school lunch menu.

So are white bread and saltier food.

Several paragraphs tucked into a massive 1,665-page government spending bill released Monday would relax Obama-era nutrition standards for school lunches.

On page 101 of the bill, due for congressional votes later this week, the secretary of agriculture is directed to allow states to grant schools exemptions so they can serve flavored low-fat milk and bread products that are not rich in whole grains.

The bill, which keeps the federal government funded through Sept. 30, also would push back deadlines for schools to meet lower sodium levels. It would bar federal funds from paying the salaries of any government officials to implement the nutrition standards.

The language would apply only to the 2017-18 school year. But it mirrors changes to school lunch standards the Trump administration announced Monday as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue signaled his intent to kick off a more extensive re-evaluation of the rules put in place under former President Barack Obama.

He said the change was based on “years of feedback from students, schools and food service experts about the challenges they are facing” from the rules. He signed a proclamation that his department would move to ease standards for whole grains, sodium and milk during a visit to Catoctin Elementary School in Leesburg, Va. He said school food rules had cost districts and states an extra $1.22 billion in fiscal year 2015.

Finalized in 2012, healthier standards for school lunches were a signature Obama administration achievement. Then-first lady Michelle Obama promoted them as part of her “Let’s Move” campaign against childhood obesity.

The rules restricted schools from serving salty, sugary and higher-fat products and required them to serve more fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthier items. Fat-free milk could be flavored, but not low-fat milk.

Some school districts and cafeteria workers complained the rules are too costly and restrictive. Without more flexibility, they warned, they’d keep throwing away whole grains, fruits and vegetables that kids refuse to eat.

“All the way through this, the yardstick on the school lunch program was whether or not the kids were eating,” said Kansas Republican Sen. Pat Roberts after joining Perdue and a group of fifth-graders Monday for lunch at the school in Virginia.

Providing more flexibility to school districts to serve food that children will eat has been a top priority for Roberts, who oversees the lunch program as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Over the past few years, the senator has toured schools in Kansas to sample meals and talk to students and administrators.

“We had kids sneaking into the school cafeterias with salt shakers and ketchup,” Roberts said.

The senator said his staff had worked with Perdue and the congressional committees in charge of agriculture appropriations to ensure that the language loosening school lunch rules made it into the 2017 spending bill.

This is just the beginning, Roberts said.

“Personally, I think we can do a lot more to make school lunches more palatable,” he said.

Criticism

Congressman Jim McGovern Monday condemned the move.

“Every day school meals help ensure millions of kids get the healthy food they need to learn and succeed. It is outrageous that President Trump and his administration are now pushing a policy that weakens the essential nutrition standards that have strengthened access to healthy food for so many students,” said McGovern, who represents much of Franklin County in Congress.

“The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 helped us make historic progress in tackling child hunger and obesity. School meals are just as essential as textbooks when it comes to helping our kids succeed and for millions of kids, school is the only place they will get a nutritious meal. We should build on the progress we’ve made, not turn our backs on kids who rely on these meals. This isn’t about flexibility, it’s about making kids less healthy. Just because President Trump thinks fast food is a balanced meal doesn’t mean we should lower our standards for our kids.”

Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House domestic policy council under Obama, said the standards had been starting to have a positive impact as trend lines in obesity among young children began to level out.

Munoz said the Obama administration had built a lot of flexibility into the rules to ensure school districts would be able to comply, and that 99 percent of them had done so.

“By and large, these are regulations that are being implemented successfully,” she said.

The language in the omnibus, she said, is a legislative attempt to dismantle rules that can be hard to undo once they’re in place.

“This looks like something that’s being done for the sake of industry at the expense of kids,” Munoz said.

“It’s much harder to revoke a rule, and it’s especially hard to revoke a rule when you’re fighting the science here,” she added. “It just opens your rule-making up to litigation, because you have to prove there’s a rational basis. ... It’s going to be interesting what the rationale is going to be for adding more salt to foods or moving away from whole grains to more refined grains.”