Why is the USDA downplaying good news about this Obama-era school nutrition program?

The U.S. Agriculture Department has good news it seemingly needs no one to know about.

On April 23, the USDA launched its “School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study,” with no press launch, no fanfare. The link on the USDA web site disappeared for a number of days after that and was altogether inaccessible earlier than reappearing underneath a unique URL.

The USDA says the research was “the first nationally representative, comprehensive assessment” of school meals after the implementation of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, a key initiative of the Obama administration that mandated healthy modifications in food at faculties.

The greatest news was that the Healthy Eating Index (HEI-2010), a multi-component measure of weight-reduction plan high quality, shot up dramatically for each school-provided breakfasts and lunches.

For the 2009-2010 school yr, the rating for breakfast was an abysmal 49.6 out of 100 (even decrease than the general American common of 59), rising to 71.three by the 2014-2015 school yr. In that very same time-frame, the lunch rating went from 57.9 to 81.5. The rating for entire grains in school meals went from 25 to 95 % of the most rating, and the rating for greens and beans rose from 21 to 72 %.

In addition, there was higher participation in school meal packages at faculties with the highest healthy food requirements. And the research discovered food waste, a troubling nationwide drawback in the lunchroom, remained comparatively unchanged.

The 52-page abstract of research findings is chockablock with different good news, so why isn’t Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue crowing about it?

The USDA didn’t reply instantly when requested about the roll-out past a press release that stated it conducts research like this to tell decisions on insurance policies and program operations, and that “we intend to use it to make these great programs even better.”

“It seems fairly outside of the norm for a federal agency to release a study that directly contradicts what the administration’s position is,” defined Elizabeth Balkan, food waste director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “That’s why it was released very quietly.”

In December, Perdue announced the USDA was weakening school nutrition requirements for entire grain, nonfat milk and sodium, all of which had been tightened throughout the Obama administration. He cited food waste and non-participation as key rationales for the shift.

“If kids are not eating what is being served, they are not benefiting, and food is being wasted,” he stated at the time.

About two-thirds of the 30 million youngsters who eat school meals daily qualify as low-income and are getting meals free or for a lowered worth. Low-income youngsters are disproportionately affected by weight problems and are much less more likely to be fed healthy meals at residence, so the dietary make-up of these school meals is impactful. Kids can get greater than half of their every day energy from school meals.

“As a nutrition and public-health policymaker, what’s extraordinary is for a policy to have that large an effect, to affect tens of millions of school kids. If you consider the crisis that we face — people living shorter, less healthy lives — solutions usually take decades,” stated Jerry Mande, a senior USDA official throughout the Obama administration who was concerned in creating the requirements. “Within two years there’s a dramatic change. This demonstrates the power the USDA has to change the way kids eat. We should be doubling down on this.”

Advocates say the push to roll again stricter necessities is in step with President Trump’s general mission of deregulation.

“Waste was the smoke screen,” stated Margo Wootan, vice chairman for nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “There have been several studies that showed that food waste hadn’t increased.”

Wootan enumerates many issues that may be executed — past making food saltier, fattier or extra processed — to scale back food waste in faculties. Have recess earlier than lunch to work up starvation and don’t schedule lunch occasions midmorning earlier than youngsters are peckish. Cut up apples as an alternative of providing them entire. Offer style checks and share tables and provides college students alternatives to offer extra enter. Perhaps most significantly, undertake an “offer versus serve” strategy at elementary faculties and center faculties (it is required at excessive faculties). This signifies that college students can choose three out of 5 meal elements and keep away from issues they don’t like and are more likely to discard.

“The Trump administration wants to tick off the maximum number of regulations it can say it rolled back,” Wootan said. “It’s another tick mark on the deregulatory agenda.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 13.7 million, or 18.5 %, of youngsters aged 2 to 19 are overweight. That proportion is larger for Hispanics (25.eight %) and non-Hispanic blacks (22 %).

The American Medical Association modified the time period weight problems from a situation right into a illness in 2013. The CDC says weight problems places individuals at an elevated danger for all causes of demise, nevertheless it is linked to hypertension and ldl cholesterol, Type 2 diabetes, coronary coronary heart illness, stroke and a few cancers.

The School Nutrition Association, the commerce group for school food-service producers and school food professionals, has commended Perdue for looking for regulatory flexibility.

Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the affiliation, says that though the research findings are very constructive, the new requirements have introduced challenges for school districts.

“We’re seeing a lot of schools struggle with cultural preferences with students. Like white rice — some cultures don’t eat brown rice. And in the Southwest, there are students who are not familiar with a whole-grain tortilla.”

She additionally says that participation in school lunch packages has dropped, from 32 million to 30 million, underneath the new requirements, and that consequently, prices per scholar have elevated.

Schools are pressured to rely extra closely on a la carte gadgets (a sandwich, moderately than the full meal with fruits, veggies and milk) to remain solvent.

Schools have additionally seemed to restaurant practices, providing extra customizable meals resembling burritos made to order, to spice up participation, and catering packages on the aspect to bolster income. Bottom line, she says: The value of getting ready the new type of meals often exceeds the value of reimbursement.

However, that runs counter to the research’s discovering that more healthy meals didn’t impose a higher monetary burden.

“There was no significant association between reported cost per NSLP (National School Lunch Program) lunch and the nutritional quality of the meals,” the study said. “That is, mean reported costs per NSLP lunch were not significantly higher in schools that prepared more-nutritious meals … than in schools that produced the least-nutritious meals.”

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