Trump Administration Begins Rolling Back Obama-Era Lunch Mandates

Published February 5, 2018

As in many districts, waste management companies were the only winners as students dumped their school lunches into the garbage.

For the current school year, Penn-Trafford High School instead tossed Mrs. Obama’s school lunch plan, and now President Donald Trump is doing the same on a national scale.

Inflexible Mandates

As with any policy created by coercive utopians to control personal choices, nothing about the Obama plan made sense. Kids, parents, and school districts hated it, and its restrictions harmed children it was ostensibly designed to help.

The directives in the law called for lowering calories, portions, and sodium through whole grains and non-fat milk and increasing fresh veggies and fruit, a one-size-fits-all approach that resulted in the first decrease in participation in the $13.6 billion National School Lunch Program in decades. Although the Obama administration never published the number of schools dropping the program, the media was full of such reports and social media exploded with memes, tweets, and videos made by disgusted, hungry children.

The law ignored regional and cultural differences among students. Asian students didn’t like brown rice, and Hispanic children wanted normal tortillas that didn’t crack when rolled. The law set the same calorie limits for an 85-pound gymnast and a 250-pound linebacker. The sodium restrictions were too low for athletes or a child in Texas walking home in June. The student in East Los Angeles does not necessarily have the same food favorites as a kid in Manhattan or one in rural Tennessee. Cafeteria creativity and local food preferences flew out the window with the national mandates.

‘Overly Prescriptive Regulations’

The School Nutrition Association (SNA), representing school nutrition professionals, has repeatedly expressed concern “overly prescriptive regulations” resulted in kids throwing lunches away while districts struggled financially with increased compliance costs exceeding federal subsidies. SNA CEO Patricia Montague said in a press statement in May 2017, “SNA is appreciative of Secretary Perdue’s support of … flexibility to serve healthy meals.” Studies, including one by the University of Vermont in 2015, showed selection does not equal consumption as students put more fruit and vegetables on their trays, but less in their mouths.

“Want school children to eat more broccoli? Give them a salt shaker and a small pat of butter,” Montague said. “One could tell a child her plain spinach is full of pixie dust or his skinless chicken has super powers, but they still won’t eat it. As Perdue has quipped, ‘Hungry children cannot learn, and trash cans don’t need nourishment.'”

Nutritional Deficits

Of great concern to school nutritionists are the more than 21 million children who receive free or subsidized lunch each school day. For many, this meal is their main source of calories and nutrition. New York City admitted when it first implemented the program, its meals fell below minimum calorie guidelines and created nutritional deficits. For a child dependent on these calories, restrictions and edibility issues render the trashcan a deadly enemy.

Mrs. Obama claimed these changes were designed to fight obesity, but where do most kids get their daily calories, and whose fault is it if they are overweight?

Based on a simple calculation of three meals a day, children eat roughly 915 meals “at home” annually, and only 180 at school (breakfast programs and parent-packed lunches not considered). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 34 percent of children in the United States eat fast food on any given day. In 2016, consumers spent more at restaurants ($54 billion) than in grocery stores ($52 billion).  Statistics show low socioeconomic status is the greatest driver of childhood obesity, not school lunches.

Planning a Full Overhaul

Schools are utilizing healthy alternatives on their own and in greater numbers. Salad bars are becoming more popular, and local “farm to school” programs are now operating in nearly 43,000 cafeterias. As kids clamor for real chocolate milk instead of cocoa-flavored water, some districts are throwing caution to the wind and serving 1 percent milk again instead of nonfat.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was not designed by kids, nor does it make anyone hunger-free.  Under Secretary Perdue, the Trump administration has already rolled back a few of the more ridiculous restrictions and is planning on instituting a full overhaul by the beginning of the next school year. With input from varying school districts, the SNA, and, one hopes, parents and children, cafeteria budgets can be made whole and children can start enjoying their lunches again.

The students at Penn Trafford were not elected, but then, neither was Michelle Obama. And President Trump was. A revised school lunch program can serve up a lesson about how a democracy is supposed to work and whose choices really matter.

Kerri Toloczko is a public policy analyst and expert in coalition management. This article was originally published by and is reprinted with permission.