Looser rules are now in place on sodium and whole grains. Here's what that means for kids.

By Sally Kuzemchak
December 11, 2018
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School Cafeteria Red Food Trays Stacked
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The Trump Administration has rolled back some of the school food regulations put into place by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, passed during President Obama's tenure. Schools will now be able to serve higher-fat milk and fewer whole grains, and to delay sodium reductions in food.

Here's a rundown of the changes, which the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) says will affect almost 99,000 schools that feed 30 million kids as part of the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, and other federal child nutrition programs:

Old rule: Only nonfat flavored milk was allowed.

New rule: One-percent (low-fat) flavored milk will be permitted.

Old rule: All grains (like pizza crust, bread, and pasta) served to students had to be whole grain-rich.

New rule: Only half of the weekly grains in the school lunch and breakfast must be whole grain-rich. (Last year, the USDA allowed schools to file a waiver requesting to serve more refined grains. This new rule allows all schools to do it, waiver-free.)

Old rule: Sodium was supposed to be reduced in school food by the 2017-2018 school year.

New rule: Targets don't need to be met until the 2024-2025 school year.

As a dietitian (and a mom of two kids in schools that are part of the National School Lunch Program), I find some of these rules more worrisome than others. Offering slightly higher fat milk doesn't bother me. But allowing more refined grains definitely does. Children don't get nearly enough whole grains, which are richer in fiber and vitamins than refines ones. Research shows that kids who eat more whole grains get more nutrients and have healthier diets overall.

The USDA says finding acceptable whole grain products is difficult for schools, but more than 85 percent of districts were already meeting that standard, says Bettina Siegel, author of the forthcoming book Kid Food. "I worry that many of them will eagerly jump at this new opportunity to serve more white-flour foods, without the hassle of waiver paperwork, just to draw more kids into their meal programs," she writes on her blog The Lunch Tray.

Kicking the sodium reduction down the road by a whopping seven years is also troubling, since it means that school food served to students may not even be line with what the USDA's own Dietary Guidelines recommend.

The USDA says the new rules are more practical, giving schools more flexibility and eliminating "unnecessary regulatory burdens". But personally, it feels like school food is being politicized at children's expense.

"The USDA's final rule is a real blow for our children's dietary health," writes Siegel. "It also shows how little the agency cared about the loud chorus of opposition to these changes from health advocates, parents, and other concerned individuals." Case in point: When the USDA first proposed loosening the regulations, she says, 96 percent of the comments they received opposed the changes.

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.