Comes down to healthier food vs. costs and taste, officials say
WASHINGTON — Should America’s schoolchildren be offered strict nutritional foods they aren’t used to or tasty but less healthy fare?
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has come down on the side of food that is appetizing and won’t go to waste, signing an order relaxing the nutritional guidelines for school lunches starting next school year.
Health advocates object and are vowing to resist efforts to roll back the healthy-school-lunches initiative of the Obama administration aimed at combating child obesity.
Perdue, a native and former governor of Georgia, makes his case with southern grits. Under the present rule, they are made mainly from whole grain, a variety that features little black flakes that causes kids to turn up their noses.
“No one is eating the grits,” Perdue claimed recently. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
Perdue is allowing for flexibility: grits and other foods with fewer whole grains, 1 percent instead of fat-free milk and slightly more sodium in school meal requirements.
He argues it will reduce the amount of food waste.
His stance is supported by the School Nutrition Association, a group that represents school nutrition directors and companies that sell food to schools.
But the decision has drawn fire from former first lady Michelle Obama, who championed the stricter nutritional standards through her “Let’s Move” public health campaign.
Appearing recently before the annual summit of the Partnership for a Healthier America, the nonprofit that fights childhood obesity, she put her objection to Perdue’s initiative in strong language:
“Moms, think about this. I don’t care what state you live in. Take me out of the equation; like me, don’t like me, but think about why someone is OK with your kids eating crap.”
Schools are required to follow government nutrition rules if they accept federal reimbursements to provide free and reduced-price meals to low-income students, which every school in the North Country does.
According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture, about a million fewer school lunches annually are bought under the stricter nutritional rules, resulting in a loss of revenue to school districts.
The department also estimated in 2015 the cost of the higher nutrition food to states and local governments increased by $1.22 billion per year.
Peggy Lawrence, food services director for the Rockdale County School District east of Atlanta, said there is a need to strike a balance between nutrition and serving food that enough kids like and will buy to support school cafeterias.
Donna Martin, president-elect of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said there is no unanimity about student preference for strict nutrition foods.
Director of nutrition for Burke County schools in east Georgia, Martin said the students there love the whole-grain grits she serves.
“They are coming through the cash register licking their fingers in the bowl of grits,” she said, adding that, coincidentally, they are made from grain at a mill owned by Secretary Perdue.
Martin said if she can get an appointment with Perdue, she will travel to Washington with her whole-grain grits as testimony to why schools can serve both healthy and tasty food.
In the suburban Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan public schools south of Minneapolis-St. Paul, nutritionist Wendy Knight said the Obama administration rules caused odd problems.
She said students complain the whole-grain mac and cheese stick to the roof of their mouths, adding, however, that “we’re not going backwards” and that whole-grain bread on sandwiches and pizza remain on the menu.
Yet she worries that students may start bringing in their own favorite foods that don’t meet government standards if school breakfast and lunch meals become too unpopular.