School lunch has changed, and for the better. While people my age may recall the salty cardboard pizzas of the past, thanks to the landmark, bipartisan 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, virtually every school in the country now offers healthier school meals with less salt, more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and no trans fats. Most soda and junk food in schools? Gone.
It’s such a rare and important success story that the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health concluded that the updated school nutrition standards are "one of the most important national obesity prevention policy achievements in recent decades." The improvements could prevent more than 2 million cases of childhood obesity and save up to $790 million in health care related costs over 10 years, according to estimates.
The progress schools are making is critical to reducing health disparities and stigma for poor children. This is particularly important given that the number of students receiving free meals has dramatically increased (from 15.4 million in 2008 to 20 million in 2017) and that two-thirds of school lunch participants (20 out of 30 million) are from poor families.
The improvements to school nutrition, created after years of public input from schools, public health experts and industry are well underway. Though there was no evidence that the process was broken, the Trump administration nonetheless arrived in office determined to "fix" it. In a press release during his first week in office, President Trump's secretary of agriculture announced his intention to "make school meals great again.” To you and me, that would mean improving child nutrition. To this administration, it meant rolling back the progress we've made. Most concerning: the administration’s intention to lock in dangerously high levels of salt in school meals.
Sixty percent of Americans oppose the Trump administration’s proposals to weaken school nutrition, according to a recent poll released by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. (If you are one of them, let USDA know you oppose these proposals by sending an email.)
Currently, an elementary school lunch has, on average, 1,230 milligrams of sodium, about two-thirds of a day’s worth (for a child). The plan was for schools to gradually decrease the amount of salt (fact-sheet courtesy of the American Heart Association) in school meals to safer levels over time, and that plan was on course. Yet the Trump administration has proposed to delay the next phase of sodium reduction by three years, and may eliminate planned future reductions.
Delaying sodium reduction by three years means that school kids would eat 84 more teaspoons of salt. That’s more than three months’ worth of extra sodium.
Nine out of 10 kids already eat too much salt. High salt intake is linked to high blood pressure, even in children, which can lead to heart disease and stroke later in life.
The planned reductions in the amount of salt in school meals are based on recommendations from experts, which include the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, American Heart Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, and National Institutes of Health. The U.S. lags behind other countries in bringing salt in foods down to safe levels; more than 50 countries have already adopted salt-reduction targets for certain foods.
Appealing products with safe levels of salt are now more readily available, and demand for these products has grown. Schwan’s Company—the largest provider of school pizza—produces tasty school pizzas that already hit safer levels. Many companies are engaged in voluntary salt reduction across their full lines of consumer products, which should aid school sodium reduction efforts.
Schools all around the country are working hard to reduce salt as well. For example, the school meals program in Elbert County, Georgia (home state of Agriculture Secretary Perdue), has done tremendous work to get their menus down to safe levels of salt. They train staff to analyze sodium content in their menus, educate students about nutrition and menu changes, work with local and regional companies to find alternative products, and re-work their recipes to ensure that foods taste good. Other schools have decreased salt by using spice bars that give students interesting flavor options.
With such tremendous progress being made and already achieved, it makes no sense for the Trump administration to reverse course.
Tell the USDA not to delay or weaken policies that are reducing salt in school meals to healthier levels.