Nutritional Standards for School Lunches Revived by Court

White bread had made a cafeteria comeback but may slip off the menu again after a federal judge restored school nutrition standards on Monday.

This 2019 image shows a student carrying lunch on a compostable tray at a Utah elementary school elementary school Utah. (Kristin Murphy/The Deseret News via AP)

GREENBELT, Md. (CN) — Beating back deregulation she said had “undone years of hard work,” an advocate for healthy school lunches lauded a federal judge for serving up defeat to the Trump administration.

“Now, more than ever, our kids deserve high nutrition standards in their school meals,” Fania Yangarber, executive director of the group Healthy School Food Maryland, said in a statement Tuesday. “In the midst of a pandemic and economic crisis, this is a win for children and families across America — particularly those that rely on free and reduced-cost meals.”

The ruling came a day earlier in Maryland, where Yangarber’s group and others protested deregulatory efforts by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Though the USDA under the previous administration had rolled out 2012 guidelines that aimed to reduce sodium and increase whole grains in school lunches, Trump-appointed Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue put the initiative on ice in 2017.

Spearheaded by first lady Michelle Obama, the healthy food program set targets over a 10-year period. Perdue said that wasn’t enough time for students to adjust to the idea of having nutritious food foisted on them in the cafeteria.

U.S. District Judge George Hazel awarded the challengers summary judgment Monday, saying the evidence was enough to find without a trial that Perdue had violated federal law.

An Obama appointee, Hazel did not dispute that agencies have the power to change a rule in response to comments.

He said “USDA’s changes are not ‘in character with the original scheme” of the interim final rule,’” however, “because there is a fundamental difference between delaying compliance standards — which indicates that school meals will still eventually meet those standards — and eliminating those standards altogether.”

With most students across the country learning from home this past month — part of regional efforts to stem the spread of the deadly respiratory infection Covid-19 — the immediate effect of Hazel’s ruling is unclear.

Some school districts are still providing meals to-go so that students who count on their schools for food every day do not go hungry. Because of the pandemic, however, nutrition standards have largely taken a back seat.

Prior to Trump’s rollback, the healthy-food push of the Obama administration faced its share of criticism. In 2014, the Washington Post had reported on the trend of students sarcastically tweeting out #ThanksMichelleObama along with photos of their unappetizing-looking meals.

“If kids are not eating what is being served, they are not benefiting, and food is being wasted,” Perdue said in a 2018 statement explaining the rule change. “USDA trusts our local operators to serve healthy meals that meet local preferences and build bright futures with good nutrition.” 

But groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest noted in their Maryland court challenge that the Trump’s changes had “eviscerated” standards informed by data with the hope of improving student health.

“The department … failed to explain, or even acknowledge, that its actions constituted a fundamental change in its interpretation of key statutes, by which it untethered the nutrition standards from the guidelines,” their complaint alleged. “Further, the Department provided no adequately reasoned explanation for modifying existing standards.”

Conrad Bolston, an attorney with the Washington firm Vinson & Elkins, represented the challengers.

Justice Department attorney Joseph Borson had argued in a motion for summary judgment that the government did not violate the Administrative Procedure Act since it “had been explicit throughout the process” that it put the rules on hold out of consideration for cash-strapped school districts. 

 “USDA’s actions have been consistent, and ‘in character’ throughout,” Borson wrote. “That is all the APA requires.”

A representative for the USDA declined to comment on Hazel’s ruling, saying the agency does not comment on ongoing litigation. 

The Center for Science in the Public Interest celebrated what it called a critical victory.

“There is no scientific basis for the Trump administration to reverse the progress schools have been making in reducing sodium and increasing whole grains in school meals,” Laura MacCleery, policy director of the group, said in a statement. “Since the now-invalidated rule was finalized, the recommendations on the permissible level of sodium for children have only been lowered. USDA should update the sodium-reduction targets rather than weaken or remove them. Judge Hazel’s ruling today makes clear that the rollbacks also violated the law.” 

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