Perdue signs proclamation to relax some school food rules

The Hagstrom Report
School Nutrition Association CEO Patricia Montague speaks about the new USDA proclamation on school lunches. At right is Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan.
Jerry Hagstrom/The Hagstrom Report |

LEESBURG, Va. — After eating a school lunch with Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and children at the Catoctin Elementary School in Leesburg, Va., today, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue signed a proclamation that gives schools more flexibility in what they can serve under the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, a key accomplishment of the Obama administration.

Under the proclamation, schools would not have to reduce sodium further, nor increase the use of whole-grain rich products, and would be able to use 1 percent milk rather than nonfat milk with flavors in the 2017-2018 school year.

The changes cannot be instituted until USDA goes through a formal rulemaking process, which should begin shortly.

From the standpoint of nutritionists and medical groups, the changes amount to a slight rollback from the rules established until the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. But the proclamation left fruit and vegetable and calorie requirements in place, and Perdue praised former First Lady Michelle Obama for her role in improving nutrition for school children.

At the announcement and in a press release, Perdue said, “Let’s make school meals great again,” a takeoff on President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan.

Perdue said the goal was to improve “palatability” and to convince some of the 1.4 million school children who have dropped out of the school lunch program under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act to come back.

But Perdue said that schools that haven’t had any problems finding whole-grain rich pasta, for example, don’t have to make changes to the rules.

Roberts noted how hard it was to try to develop a child nutrition reauthorization bill that was never finished, and said he was glad to have a secretary in place who would address these issues.

Patricia Montague, CEO of the School Nutrition Association, which represents school food service directors and the companies that make school foods, thanked Perdue for the changes.

Afterward, she said that her group’s top priorities at the present time are to stop the campaign in Congress for block-granting school meals, to get commodities for school breakfasts in the farm bill and for a study on simplification of the school meals program.


There was a small group of protesters outside the school.

House Agriculture Committee ranking member Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said in a joint news release that they “condemned the move by the Trump administration to rollback nutrition standards for school meals across the country.”

“It is outrageous that President Trump and his administration are now pushing a policy that weakens the essential nutrition standards which have strengthened access to healthy food for so many students,” McGovern said. “This isn’t about flexibility, it’s about making kids less healthy. Just because President Trump thinks fast-food is a balanced meal doesn’t mean we should lower our standards for our kids.”

“Just days into his new job as secretary of USDA, Secretary Perdue has decided to put special interests ahead of the health of America’s children,” DeLauro said.

“School meal nutrition standards were enacted, on a bipartisan basis, to bring school meals up to date with the latest nutrition science-ensuring that our children have healthy options on their plates,” DeLauro said. “However, the USDA and President Trump have now decided to roll back much of the progress we have made in the fight against rates of childhood obesity and malnutrition. This interim final rule by the USDA is a slippery slope that will completely undermine school breakfast and lunch programs and the USDA should immediately reverse course.”

“It’s disappointing that one of Secretary Perdue’s first actions as the head of USDA is to rollback school nutrition standards with this rule,” Pingree said.

“For many low-income students, the meals they eat in school are all they will eat that day. Minimizing access to healthy food will have consequences for our nation as it grapples with a childhood obesity crisis,” Pingree said.

“I recognize schools are faced with strict and limited budgets, so we should concentrate on providing support and technical assistance to schools rather than rolling back standards. I hope Secretary Perdue will refocus his priorities on policies that will improve access to nutritious food and withdraw this rule.”