As Trump administration relaxes school nutrition guidelines, many local parents are hopeful

Hungry for more

HANCOCK COUNTY — It seems a few times a week one of Donette Looper’s sons buys two school lunches in one day.

At first, the mom of two Greenfield-Central boys figured one of them had stepped up to buy a friend’s meal. But as it turns out, one healthy low-calorie school lunch just isn’t enough for her growing boys, she said.

Looper is among parents looking hopefully on Monday’s announcement by the Trump administration of plans to roll back rules governing federal nutrition standards, which she hopes will pave the way for more filling, tasty meals.

The guidelines being relaxed, pushed as part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign to combat childhood obesity, were phased in beginning in 2012, setting calorie, fat, sugar and sodium limits on foods in the lunch line as well as those available in school vending machines.

The new rules allow for more whole grains, suspend plans to require school cafeterias to cut back on sodium and put 1 percent milk back on the shelves instead of only nonfat.

Some parents are applauding the new guidelines, saying standards championed by Obama were too strict, forcing students to eat lunches that have little taste and leave them feeling hungry. Food service directors say lifting the rules for what they can serve will make it easier to prepare meals students enjoy and might lead to less waste, with fewer students tossing out items they don’t like.

Health advocates who supported the former guidelines are concerned about sodium levels in particular. School lunches for elementary school students are now required to have fewer than 1,230 mg of sodium, a change put in place in 2014. The new rule would keep the meals at that level, delaying a requirement to lower sodium to 935 mg this year.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue this week said the USDA will continue to allow schools to pursue waivers for regulations that remain in place, including one that mandates all grains served in the lunch line be more than 50 percent whole grain.

“If kids aren’t eating the food, and it’s ending up in the trash, they aren’t getting any nutrition — thus undermining the intent of the program,” said Perdue, who traveled to a school in Leesburg, Virginia, Monday to make the announcement.

Perdue said the department will work on long-term solutions to help schools that say the Obama administration standards are too restrictive.

Schools have long been required to follow government nutrition rules if they accept federal reimbursements for free and reduced-price meals for low-income students, but the regulations in place now are stricter than ever before, officials say.

The Trump administration changes leave many of the Obama administration rules in place, including those mandating students take fruits and vegetables from the lunch line.

The standards have been in place for about five years, so much of the grumbling has subsided, but educators know the options aren’t popular, said Greenfield-Central food service director Tony Zurwell.

The district already applies for a waiver to lift the requirement that all grains served be whole grains, he said. The corporation had trouble finding whole grain pastas students would eat, he said. They didn’t hold well on the serving line, often turning mushy. And serving whole wheat pizza didn’t go over well either. Students have long loved pizza day at school, but the whole wheat option wasn’t popular, Zurwell said.

He has mixed feelings about lifting some of the rules, saying what the district serves now is healthy but doesn’t allow for much flexibility.

Finding seasonings that fit the sodium requirement has been most difficult, and school officials were already dreading further cutbacks, Zurwell said.

Looper said her sons are “bottomless pits,” often raiding the snack cabinet as soon as they walk in the door, so she wasn’t surprised to learn some days, they spring for two slices of pizza instead of one.

She doesn’t mind spending the extra money so long as her kids are full and aren’t eating junk — but she hopes the changes coming mean they’ll leave the cafeteria with fuller bellies, she said.

The Associated Press Contributed to this report.

Author photo
Samm Quinn is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3275 or squinn@greenfieldreporter.com.