The Trump administration loosened Obama-era school lunch requirements Monday, saying schools don't need to try so hard to serve whole grains, fat-free milk and food low in salt.
It's just too hard for schools to do and kids don't like the food, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said.
"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," Perdue said in a statement. The Agriculture Department has jurisdiction over school food programs.
"Schools are experiencing challenges in finding the full range of products they need and that their students enjoy in whole grain-rich form. They need continued flexibility in meeting the whole grain requirements for school meals," USDA said in a statement headlined "Ag Secretary Perdue Moves to Make School Meals Great Again."
The rules were part of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act signed by President Barack Obama and promoted by first lady Michelle Obama as part of her "Let's Move" initiative.
"It's discouraging that just days into his tenure, one of the first things that Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue will do is to roll back progress on the quality of the meals served to America's children," margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest said in a statement.
"Ninety percent of American kids eat too much sodium every day. Schools have been moving in the right direction, so it makes no sense to freeze that progress in its tracks—and allow dangerously high levels of salt in school lunch."
Perdue said USDA would work on more permanent solutions but in the meantime would let school districts opt out of some of the requirements.
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"A perfect example is in the south, where the schools want to serve grits," said Perdue, a former governor of Georgia.
"But the whole grain variety has little black flakes in it, and the kids won't eat it. The school is compliant with the whole grain requirements, but no one is eating the grits. That doesn't make any sense."
USDA also is giving schools a break on meeting low-sodium requirements through 2020, as well as looser requirement on the types of milk they can serve.
"Perdue will direct USDA to begin the regulatory process for schools to serve 1 percent flavored milk through the school meals programs," the agency said.
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"I've got 14 grandchildren, and there is no way that I would propose something if I didn't think it was good, healthful, and the right thing to do," Perdue said.
The new approach is included in the budget agreement sent to Congress for a vote this week, which would fund the government through October.
"The Secretary of Agriculture shall allow States to grant an exemption from the whole grain requirements that took effect on or after July 1, 2014, and the States shall establish a process for evaluating and responding, in a reasonable amount of time, to requests for an exemption," the budget agreement reads.
They have to show they're suffering hardship in getting the products and getting students to eat them, the bill says.
Separately, the Food and Drug Administration delayed restaurant menu labeling requirements by a full year, to 2018. The restaurant industry had lobbied hard against the rule and succeeded in delaying it multiple times.
"The FDA has made the right decision to delay a rule that would have essentially dictated how every food service establishment in America with more than 20 locations — restaurants, grocery stores, movie theaters, and more — writes and displays their menus," Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said in a statement.
CSPI didn't like that decision, either.
"Republicans are just as likely as Democrats to suffer from diabetes, heart disease, and other diet-related health problems," Wootan said. "Yet the Trump Administration is myopically putting Big Food's interests over the interests of American consumers."