Why Health Experts Are Concerned Over New School Lunch Rules

A girl takes her lunch toward a seat in a school cafeteria
(Image credit: XiXinXing/Shutterstock)

School lunch programs in the U.S. will no longer be required to meet all of the nutrition standards set in the Obama era, the Trump administration announced this week.

The news means that school lunches won't necessarily see the cuts in sodium and boosts in whole grains that were outlined in the Obama administration's Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which aimed to improve child nutrition.

Specifically, rather than requiring that all grain products served in school lunches be whole grains, the government will allow schools to request exemptions to this requirement for the 2017-2018 school year, said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, who signed a proclamation outlining the changes on Monday (May 1). And instead of requiring schools to continue reducing sodium levels in school meals, the government will let schools keep sodium levels where they are now, at least through 2020. In addition, schools will be allowed to serve 1 percent flavored milk, instead of just nonfat flavored milk. [10 Ways to Promote Kids' Healthy Eating Habits]

Perdue said the changes were being made because existing nutrition requirements for school lunches were too stringent and had resulted in higher costs for school districts. In addition, Perdue said, some children weren't eating the healthier food.

 "If kids aren't eating the food and it's ending up in the trash, they aren't getting any nutrition — thus undermining the intent of the program," Perdue said in a statement.

However, some nutrition experts expressed concern about the new standards.

"While the health impact of reopening this rule is unknown at this point, it's clear [that] having American schoolchildren eat fewer whole grains is not heart-healthy," Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association, said in a statement. Relaxing the sodium requirements is also worrisome, she said. "If we don't move forward with the sodium standards, there could be serious health consequences for our kids," such as increased blood pressure, as well as higher risk of heart disease and stroke, Brown said.

Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer watchdog group, also called the new sodium policy concerning.

"Ninety percent of American kids eat too much sodium every day," Wootan said in a statement. "Schools have been moving in the right direction, so it makes no sense to freeze that progress in its tracks and allow dangerously high levels of salt in school lunch."

The new policy does not affect the requirement for fruits and vegetables in school lunches or standards for food served in vending machines set in the Obama-era act.

Original article on Live Science.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.