In 2012, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) under the Obama administration created stricter standards for foods served in the National School Lunch Program, the nutrition in public school lunches improved slightly. More fresh fruits and vegetables were added. The requirement for whole grains increased greatly. Some flavored milks were eliminated. Target dates for an incremental reduction in sodium were set.

At the time, I was optimistic. I applauded the initial changes while expecting the National School Lunch Program to continue to make improvements. It never did. Now six years later, several of the small improvements are being taken away by the USDA under the Trump administration.

What's changed

boy, school lunch The USDA has changed the regulations for school lunches, again. (Photo: SpeedKingz/Shutterstock)

The USDA recently submitted a final rule to be published by the Office of the Federal Register. Titled Child Nutrition Programs: Flexibilities for Milk, Whole Grains, and Sodium, specific changes are being made in each of these categories:

Milk: The 2012 regulations said only fat-free milk could be flavored. The new regulations allow for low-fat milk to be flavored, in addition. This means more of the milk offered to students will contain sugar because flavored milks always contain added sugar.

Whole grains: The 2012 regulations said that by 2015, 50 percent of grains offered must be whole grains and the remaining grains had to be enriched. The new guidelines now say only half of the grains must meet this standard.

Sodium: The 2012 regulations called for gradually reducing sodium over 10 years, with three targets to hit. The new regulations will stop at the second target and push the implementation of that target to 2025.

The rationale

kids eating lunch What will it take for all students to be offered school lunches that are both delicious and nutritious? (Photo: USDA/Flickr

The new rule is 75 pages long. Each change is accompanied by several page of information including summarizing the comments the public and businesses made before the rule was written. The rule also explains the USDA's final reasoning for each change.

It mentions that the 2012 milk restrictions may have led to an overall decrease in milk consumption. (Data shows that consumption of milk has decreased from 197 pounds per person in 2000 to 154 pounds in 2016.) It seems apparent the new milk rule is aimed at helping the dairy industry, which always lobbies heavily whenever nutrition policy is being decided. The milk industry sells more milk, but the kids also get more sugar.

The 2012 whole grain requirements — implemented in total by 2015 — were a problem in many schools because the foods being offered weren't palatable to kids. Instead of dedicating time and resources to create recipes for school foods that both contain nutritious whole grains while limiting sodium — something that could have been done during the former administration — schools were left to add whatever whole grains were offered from their contracted suppliers. Rather than focus on health and do the work required to offer whole grain foods that appeal to students, the current administration weakened the rules.

Part of the reason the sodium rules were rolled back has to do with the lack of cooking facilities in schools. Few schools cook lunch from scratch. Schools rely heavily on processed foods, and the creators of those processed foods will now have more time to reduce the amount of sodium in them.

A half-step backward

The 2012 rule was not the beginning of the big win for students I had hoped they eventually would become. They were a step in the right direction, but they certainly had a long way to go to reach their healthy destination. This new rule seems to be half a step backward. It doesn't take lunches back to the beginning of the journey, but it does take them closer to the beginning than the end.

Schools don't have to go backward, though. Each individual school system can keep the stricter standards they have now and continue to improve upon them. The American Heart Association (AHA) put out a statement asking schools to do just that.

We hope all schools reject this regulation and continue their commitment to serve healthier foods on our kids’ plates. Many schools declared they would do just that when these changes were first announced late last year. With nearly 100 percent of the nation’s schools already complying with the school meal standards that were released in 2012, children across the country are clearly benefiting.

The AHA also pointed out that the USDA didn't have to roll back the rules for all schools since so many of them were meeting standards. "If the concern truly was to provide those few schools experiencing challenges with more 'flexibility', the more responsible approach would have been for USDA to provide more technical assistance to these institutions so they could offer healthier food choices," the AHA stated.

It should be noted that the rule, with its changes for milk, whole grains and sodium, doesn't only affect school lunches. It also affects the School Breakfast Program, the Special Milk Program for Children and the Child and Adult Care Food Program for participants ages 6 and older.

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

We're going backward on school lunches
The USDA updates National School Lunch Program rules, allowing more types of flavored milk and fewer whole grains.