U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue visits and serves bacon cheeseburgers for lunch to some of the Discovery Elementary School students, in Arlington, VA, during National School Lunch Week, October 15-19, 2018. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.

From School Lunch to SNAP, New Attacks on Kids’ Health and Nutrition

, senior analyst, Food and Environment | February 18, 2020, 11:43 am EST
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Life comes at you fast, and so does the Trump administration’s ongoing assault on children’s health. Over the last many months, my colleagues in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy have been hard at work rounding up stories of action or inaction, at agencies from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Consumer Product Safety Commission and beyond, that put the nation’s children in greater danger. Their report and related not-really-for-kids-storybook came out last week, and I encourage you to read them both.

But sadly, the tally is already a bit out of date. Even as our report was in press, the administration was jumping on a few more opportunities to put kids at risk.

These include offering up a new rollback of healthy school lunch rules, pressing ahead on various efforts to deny food assistance to low-income and immigrant families, and—just last week—proposing steep new budget cuts to federal nutrition programs.

Secretary Sonny’s school lunch shenanigans (the sequel)

The latest assault is taking place in school lunchrooms, where Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue is again seeking to undo nutrition standards that have made school lunches and breakfasts healthier over the past decade. Back in 2017, when Perdue announced his intention to weaken some standards—and later succeeded in cutting whole grain requirements and returning sugar-sweetened flavored milk to kids’ lunch trays—I distinctly recall saying to my colleagues, “This is bad, but at least he hasn’t messed with fruit and vegetable requirements.”

Welp…

In late January, Perdue’s USDA proposed new rules that would reduce the amount and variety of fruit and vegetables that must be included in school meals served to some 30 million US children every year.  The proposal is lengthy, but among other outcomes, it could:

  • Cut by half the amount of fruit required in some meals served through the school breakfast program;
  • Reduce the variety of required vegetables, leaving more room for schools to choose which vegetables they’d like to serve more often (French fries, anyone?);
  • Allow schools to serve more meat at breakfast (think processed sausage patties, something we’ve shown no one needs more of); and
  • Allow grain-based desserts to count toward grain requirements in after-school meal programs.

Between the 2018 rule changes and these new proposals, it sure looks like Secretary Perdue wants schools to be able to offer kids more of a whole bunch of foods that the science-based Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 had successfully cut back on: Chocolate milk. White bread. French fries. Macaroni and cheese (I’ll get to that in a minute). Hamburgers and pizza.

And in a surreal twist, Perdue’s latest rules seek to redefine what counts as a “fruit” or “vegetable” in certain cases.

I remember learning, as a kid, perhaps in school, the interesting botanical fact that a tomato is a fruit. But if Secretary Perdue’s newly proposed rule is finalized, today’s kids could be led to believe (falsely) that potatoes are also fruit. That’s because, the proposed rule will allow schools to offer “any vegetable…including potatoes and other starchy vegetables, in place of fruit” on their breakfast menus.

Perdue’s new rule would also magically transform some kinds of pasta into vegetables and require lunchroom staff to gaslight the kiddos, insisting that pasta made of vegetable flour is a vegetable, even if there’s not a recognizable vegetable on the plate. From the (completely unironic) USDA policy memo on the topic:

[Schools] must indicate—using signs or other nutrition education—that pasta made of vegetable flour is a “vegetable” and not a grain component of the meal. For example, pasta made of chickpea flour could be labeled as “Chickpea Pasta” with a symbol showing it to be part of the vegetable component of the meal. FNS encourages program operators to offer vegetables in a variety of ways on the menu and to educate children about vegetables from farm to plate.

(You might ask, how is there already a policy memo about this change that has just been proposed? Well, it turns out these new fruit and vegetable definitions aren’t entirely new. Perdue and his friends in Congress initially slipped them past us, buried in Section 768 of this appropriations bill, back in February 2019 when they thought we wouldn’t notice. The newly proposed rules would make these policy changes permanent.)

Now, you may be wondering what Secretary Perdue and the Trump administration have against better school nutrition. For a guy whose Twitter profile boasts that he is “Big Buddy to 14 grandchildren,” Perdue seems oddly unconcerned about everyone else’s kids.

His stated rationale is to give schools “flexibility” under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, and that word appears more than 100 times throughout the proposal. But all this flexibility seems like a solution in search of a problem. According to a USDA survey, 99 percent of schools were already successfully meeting the existing standards as early as 2016.

So schools don’t need this rollback. But someone will surely benefit from it. When Secretary Perdue proposed allowing sugary sweetened milk back into lunchrooms in 2018, it was Big Dairy groups who applauded the move and endorsed it  in public comments. This time around, I’d put my money on the processed food industry—companies that sell frozen French fries and pizza—as the likeliest cheerleaders for additional “flexibility.”

Shredding science and the social safety net

Since taking the reins of the USDA in 2017, Secretary Perdue has seemingly made it his mission to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly food stamps) in any way he can. At first, the primary targets were underemployed adult SNAP recipients. But in 2019 Perdue’s USDA proposed additional rules that would make it harder for many families with children to qualify for SNAP, in the process causing nearly one million kids to lose access to affordable school meals and making parents choose between buying food and heating their homes.

Moreover, the Department of Homeland Security has pushed yet another rule that would force many immigrants—including some whose children are United States citizens—to choose between keeping food on the table and maintaining a path to citizenship. And in a new development, the Supreme Court recently lifted a lower court’s injunction, allowing the administration to proceed with its plans even as various legal challenges run their course. So of course they will.

Finally, the Trump administration’s latest budget proposal, released just last week, tries another way to remove families in need from the SNAP program, proposing to cut spending by $181 billion over a decade. The budget also offers up, for the third year running, a preposterous plan to replace some SNAP dollars—which we’ve shown would otherwise benefit local economies—with so-called “America’s Harvest Boxes” filled with packaged foods and (somehow) delivered to SNAP recipients’ doors. Critics literally booed that idea when Perdue first proposed it in 2018, and it was panned again when he resurrected it in 2019, but here we go again.

In further affronts to children, the budget proposal takes aim at education, seeks to cut Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and would stifle the science and innovation that is needed to build a better future for today’s children.

Judging by previous budget cycles (and comments we’ve already heard from legislators), Congress will reject these proposals and instead develop spending bills that more responsibly fund SNAP, other government programs for kids, and research that benefits us all.

But the attacks will no doubt keep coming.

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