Is this the end of the school lunch wars?

A bitter fight has raged in Washington over school nutrition for more than a decade. A new Biden administration regulation just might offer a truce.

A photograph of multiple bright green cafeteria trays set close together featuring apples, oranges, grain dishes, rice and salads. Brightly colored image.

Serving trays with delicious food, closeup. Concept of school lunch

Happy Friday, and welcome to the 160th edition of Food Fix! Time has flown by and somehow I’m now in my 36th week of this pregnancy. As I shared with paid subscribers earlier this week, Food Fix will take a month-long break when the bebe arrives. After that, I’ll feature roughly six weeks of guest writers, so you’ll get to hear from some different voices! More to come on all this.

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Is this the end of the school lunch wars?

About a decade ago, I spoke with another reporter who didn’t cover food issues. They made a passing comment about how then-first lady Michelle Obama’s work on childhood obesity and nutrition was a soft issue. 

I corrected them, in no uncertain terms. There is nothing soft about these issues! At the time, the first lady was taking direct fire from Republicans on Capitol Hill who were angry about a move to strengthen school-nutrition standards. Legions of school lunch workers were also furious, as were major food companies that sell into schools. It devolved into a political knife fight – all over what foods to serve to kids on the taxpayers’ dime.

Federal school-nutrition programs – primarily for lunch and breakfast – are a multibillion dollar market. They offer a pipeline for the food industry to market products to kids early. They’re also a crucial lifeline for the millions of children who rely on them, in too many cases for their only square meal of the day. (Nearly 30 million kids participate in these programs, which cost taxpayers more than $22 billion last year alone.)

The stakes are high, in so many ways. It’s never been a soft issue, and we’ve been in a period of protracted warfare over those nutrition standards since the Obama administration. There were times when things temporarily cooled off, like when the Trump administration relaxed some of the rules, but it always swung back to a push-and-pull about whether Washington was ever going to force schools to adopt pieces of the Obama-era policies that were never fully implemented due to these fights.

This week, however, we may have entered a new chapter: I think it’s possible that the long simmering war over school meal standards is coming to a close, at least for now.

What’s new? On Wednesday the Biden administration issued its final rule for school nutrition standards, a move to better align school meals programs with the latest federal nutrition advice (AKA the Dietary Guidelines). The rule cuts sodium and sugar in meals, while keeping chocolate and other flavored milks on the menu. (USDA considered dropping flavored milks from elementary and middle schools, but ultimately backed off after dairy processors pledged to cut sugar in these products.)

Throwback to a year ago, when I wrote about the Biden administration’s proposed update to these standards, it felt like we were straight back in the school meals battles of yore. The same groups opposed change while the same groups cheered for bolder action – diet-related diseases remain a huge concern, after all.

The final rule unveiled this week, however, has been broadly cast as a meaningful compromise, receiving positive reactions from across the spectrum. (I’m told USDA officials repeatedly urged stakeholders not to criticize the final rule, but I’ve covered this issue long enough to know that the major groups wouldn’t have held their fire unless they felt a real compromise had been struck.)

Grains, salt and sugar: For much of the past decade, the biggest school lunch fights have been waged over what portion of grains have to be “whole-grain rich” (at least half whole grain, often mixed with refined grains) and to what extent schools must cut back on sodium. Last year, the Biden administration added a new faultline into the mix by proposing the first-ever cap on added sugars in school meals. (Yes, you read that correctly, there isn’t currently a limit.)

Of course, this added sugars cap didn’t come out of nowhere. It stemmed from the fact that the Dietary Guidelines have since 2015 advised Americans to limit their consumption of added sugars to no more than 10 percent of their total calories. Ultimately, schools are required to follow the Dietary Guidelines, so it was only a matter of time before sugar limits arose. (In this case, we’re talking about more than a decade after the guidelines were updated to urge a cutback on added sugar.)

A grand compromise: The Biden administration largely stuck to its guns on added sugar – all meals must adhere to the Dietary Guidelines limit of 10 percent of total calories (as a weekly average) by fall 2027, but the final rule does compromise quite a bit on sodium reduction. It also gives schools more time to phase-in changes. 

For example, USDA proposed last year that schools cut back on sodium by nearly a third overall by 2029. The final rule seeks a more modest 15 percent reduction in lunches and 10 percent reduction in breakfasts by the 2027-28 school year. In the end, the department’s hands were basically tied after special interests successfully for language in a recent congressional spending bill that essentially mandated a lesser cut.

“Congress directed us to do this,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters in a briefing this week.

Salty context: Sodium cuts are especially thorny for these meal programs, which have increasingly relied on prepared and processed foods to serve millions of kids at a low cost. Sodium is a key ingredient not only for taste, but also function, from texture to food safety. Pushing schools to cut back on sodium has long been seen as a way to encourage more scratch cooking, but many school nutrition programs lack the infrastructure and staffing to do so. On the flip side, plenty of schools have had success with aggressive sodium cuts from their menus.

The Center for Science and Public Interest (CSPI) has long been among the most vocal over the need to drastically reduce sodium in school meals, but even CSPI issued a pretty positive statement on the final rule. 

“When we improve the nutritional quality of school meals, the return on our investment is huge,” said Meghan Maroney, CSPI’s federal child nutrition campaign manager. “That’s why setting an added sugars standard for school meals is such a big deal. Particularly at breakfast, where cereals, flavored milks, and even yogurts can have too much added sugar to fit into a healthy diet, USDA’s final rule will bring added sugars down to safer levels in alignment with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”

Maroney also commented on the sodium compromise, acknowledging that school meals will end up containing “much more sodium than they should.” 

Many other health groups struck a similar tone – mostly praise with just a small dash of disappointment.

Salt check: If you zoom out on the sodium reduction fight, we are basically ending up halfway to the final Obama-era standards for schools – roughly 15 years after those standards were first proposed. 

While this week’s response has been overwhelmingly positive, not everyone offered glowing reviews of the final rule. Nourish Science, a group co-founded by former USDA and FDA official Jerold Mande, said: “The updated school meal standards, while a step in the right direction, seem more like a missed opportunity.”

Mande took particular issue with the USDA not explicitly tying its success to ensuring children end up healthier after the changes are implemented. “USDA should set as the program goal: ensuring every child reaches age 18 at a healthy weight and in good metabolic health,” he said.

A way forward: There isn’t unanimous agreement that USDA compromised in the right ways here – and surely individual companies may take their sugar-cap gripes to Capitol Hill (cereal and yogurt, in particular, which soon face specific limits) – but it also seems like we may be done fighting over all this for a while. 

I talked to Diane Pratt-Heavner, a longtime spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, a group representing more than 50,000 school nutrition workers and school food suppliers that’s been the tip of the spear pushing back on many of the mandates from Washington. The group issued a pretty favorable statement in response to the final rule, expressing appreciation to USDA for making changes in response to feedback.

“It is clear that they heard our concerns, our members’ concerns, that they listened and they responded,” Pratt-Heavner told me. “Will this be easy for our members to achieve? No. School nutrition professionals will absolutely need additional funding and support to get there.”


What I’m reading

Early tests of H5N1 prevalence in milk suggest U.S. bird flu outbreak in cows is widespread (STAT News). “The researchers expect additional lab studies currently underway to show that those samples don’t contain live virus with the capability to cause human infections, meaning that the risk of pasteurized milk to consumer health is still very low,” reports Megan Molteni. “But the prevalence of viral genetic material in the products they sampled suggest that the H5N1 outbreak is likely far more widespread in dairy cows than official counts indicate. So far, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has reported 33 herds in eight states have tested positive for H5N1.”

What consumers should know about the milk testing positive for bird flu (NPR). “Federal officials say the risk to the public remains low after the Food and Drug Administration announced Wednesday that tests of commercially available milk detected traces of bird flu,” writes Joe Hernandez. “Government officials and scientific experts say so far there is no evidence of infectious virus in pasteurized milk. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Jeanne Marrazzo said Wednesday in a call with reporters that tests conducted on retail milk showed that there was genetic material from the virus. Efforts to grow the virus from those samples indicated that the virus was not infectious or ‘alive,’ Marrazzo said, adding that testing was only conducted on a small set of samples.”

Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestlé among top plastic polluters, report finds (FoodBev Media). “A study published this week by peer-reviewed journal Science Advances pinpointed some of the major brands responsible for plastic pollution across six continents,” writes Phoebe Fraser. “The researchers – who used a team of more than 100,000 volunteers – catalogued over 1.8 million pieces of plastic waste. The study identified 28,570 brand names found on plastic in areas including beaches, rivers and parks in 84 countries. They found that the top five companies were responsible for 24% of the branded plastic; with 56 companies responsible for over 50% of the branded plastic.”

Flint residents grapple with water crisis a decade later: ‘If we had the energy left, we’d cry’ (The Guardian). “Now, a decade after the crisis began, kids are still sick, the city is not done replacing lead pipes and families…are still awaiting justice,” writes Hilary Beaumont. “‘The people of Flint will never trust that water again,’ said Pastor Alfred Harris of Concerned Pastors for Social Action. Harris was part of a group of pastors who organized protests and water-filter giveaways, met with lawmakers to urge them to stop sourcing water from the Flint River and sued, along with other groups, the city and state in 2016.”

Goldman talks with private credit for Beyond Meat capital (Bloomberg). “Goldman Sachs Group Inc. has held conversations with private credit lenders to help shore up Beyond Meat Inc.’s liquidity, according to people with knowledge of the matter,” report Carmen Arroyo and Ellen Schneider. “The Los Angeles-based producer of meat substitutes has had liquidity struggles for some time while trying to find a path to profitability, announcing an 8% cut to the workforce last November. Beyond Meat’s shares are at just 3% of the high notched following 2019’s initial public offering and the convertible bond trades at deeply distressed levels of under 25 cents on the dollar, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.”


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