Victory for Healthy School Meals as Court Rejects Rollback of Nutrition Standards

Mothers, teachers, physicians, health experts, and Earthjustice attorneys join forces to protect children’s health.

A student chooses among lunch options at East Brainerd Elementary School in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
A student chooses among lunch options at East Brainerd Elementary School in Chattanooga, Tennessee. (The Washington Post via Getty Images)

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More than 30 million children rely on school-provided lunches, and 14 million children eat school breakfasts, making school food programs one of our nation’s biggest public health initiatives. They also represent one of our most successful public health programs.

With better food, children are healthier, better students, and better equipped for a healthy life. It is thus great news that a court last month struck down this administration’s rollback of critical nutrition standards for school meals, in an important victory for all children. This news comes amid the administration’s newest attack on healthy school meals.

The federal school meal program makes federally subsidized, low-cost meals that are nutritionally balanced available to any student wishing to participate. By ensuring that all children have access to adequate and healthy food, they form an essential safety net, especially for children from low-income households. Children who receive meals at free or reduced price consume 75% of school lunches and 85% of school breakfasts.

The administration’s attempt to roll back school food standards conflicted with well-established nutrition science.

My colleagues and I made this argument in a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the American Heart Association, American Public Health Association (APHA), FoodCorps, MomsRising, and National Education Association.

School nutrition standards ensure that school meals meet the nutritional needs of children and keep them healthy. In 2018, however, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees the school nutrition program, reversed existing school nutrition standards for whole grains and sodium that, as the law required, were consistent with the most recent nutrition science. The Center for Science in the Public Interest and Healthy School Foods Maryland, represented by Democracy Forward, sued to prevent the weakening of these standards, and we represented other groups supporting this lawsuit.

The law sensibly requires that school nutrition standards be based on sound nutrition science. Our brief stressed that nutrition science has consistently recommended children consume more whole grains and less sodium to achieve the healthiest outcomes.

High sodium intake is a major contributor to high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, and whole grains contain healthy fiber and nutrients that reduce risk of heart disease. Unfortunately, most children currently consume much too much sodium and not enough whole grains. This makes it particularly important that school meals do not further contribute to these imbalances. Instead, school meals can and should make it easier for children to eat more nutritiously than they may otherwise.

School meals have an impact far beyond the cafeteria. When kids eat healthy food in schools, they are better equipped to succeed academically and they learn healthy eating habits that will benefit them throughout their lives.

Studies have confirmed that students at schools with healthier meals can perform better on tests than students at schools serving average meals. Also, importantly, studies have shown that children’s food preferences can be shaped by what they eat when they are young. Thus, school meals can help develop children’s tastes for healthy foods that are high in whole-grains and contain appropriate amounts of sodium.

With diet being a contributing factor to numerous chronic diseases suffered by American adults, healthy school meals can provide a foundation to boost public health on a large scale.

School nutrition standards enacted in 2012 brought whole grain and sodium targets in line with dietary guidelines. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans are evidence-based food and beverage recommendations published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture every 5 years to reflect the latest scientific knowledge. They are developed after a thorough public process, with input from numerous scientists and experts and an external, independent peer review.

The Dietary Guidelines have long said that children should consume no more than about one teaspoon of salt per day to control their risk of high blood pressure and other diet-related disease.

In 2012, USDA established three progressive targets, based on recommendations from the National Academy of Medicine, to gradually lower sodium levels in school meals, eventually bringing them in line with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines by the 2022-23 school year. These levels were upheld in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines — and the 2020 Dietary Guidelines will likely recommend further lowering the amounts of sodium for some younger children. Before the 2012 standards were issued, 75% of schools were serving lunches that exceeded recommended sodium levels by over 50%.

Similarly, the Dietary Guidelines have repeatedly advised that half of the grains children eat be whole grains.

The 2012 standards required that all grains served in schools be whole grain-rich within two years. Whole grain-rich means the grain product has to be at least 50% whole grain. Whole grains contain important nutrients and fiber that help to prevent chronic disease. Studies have found that whole grains reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes and help contribute to weight maintenance.

The USDA rolled back nutrition standards in 2018. The revised standards weakened sodium targets, extended the time schools had to reduce sodium content, and lowered the requirement for whole grains, such that only half of all grains served only had to be whole grain-rich.

Under the new standards, school meals were no longer on track to meet the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines. The administration argued that the standards needed to be weakened because schools were having a hard time serving meals that conformed to the standards while also being appealing to students.

It claimed that the 2012 standards would lead to increased food waste because kids would be put off by the healthier food and throw it away. But USDA’s own data shows that food waste did not increase even as the 2012 standards were implemented. USDA data also reveals that more than 85% of weekly lunch menus were already meeting or close to meeting the first sodium reduction target.

Victory in Court

In April, the District Court for the District of Maryland issued a decision striking down the rollbacks as illegal. While the Court ultimately found that USDA had discretion to veer from the Dietary Guidelines, it concluded that USDA failed to follow proper procedures in issuing new standards because the finalized 2018 standards differed too much from USDA’s initial proposal. Specifically, USDA did not provide adequate notice of its plans to eliminate the final sodium target and change the whole grain targets.

Nevertheless, for the American Heart Association, American Public Health Association, FoodCorps, MomsRising, and National Education Association — who work across the country to promote children’s health and well-being everyday — this is an important success that helps ensure all children have access to healthy school food.

“Nothing is more important to America’s moms — and nothing should be more important to America’s leaders — than ensuring our kids get nutritious meals that will improve their health now and set them up for good health in the future,” said Elyssa Schmier, National Director of Budget and Tax at MomsRising. “We are grateful for the legal victories so far, but they are interim and must become permanent. The Trump administration simply must abandon its cynical, immoral efforts to roll back the nutrition standards that make school meals healthier. The coronavirus pandemic has underscored the stakes; it is taking an especially high toll on people and children with preexisting conditions, including obesity, diabetes, and heart conditions — all of which stem from poor diet and nutrition. Moms are a sleeping giant on this issue. We will not stand for school meals that fail to do everything possible to improve our children’s health.”

“The USDA’s decision to weaken the standards, despite overwhelming opposition, threatens decades of progress to ensure children receive healthy meals at school,” said Mark Schoeberl, executive vice president of advocacy for the American Heart Association. “Adhering to science-based sodium and whole grain standards for school meals ensures we are putting our children’s health first.”

“Access to healthy meals — including nutritious school breakfasts and lunches — is critical for our nation’s children to reach their full health potential,” stated Susan Polan, PhD, associate executive director for public affairs and advocacy with the American Public Health Association. “APHA is pleased with the court’s decision to block USDA’s efforts to weaken the sodium and whole grain standards in school meals, and we will continue our efforts to ensure all of our nation’s kids have access to healthy and affordable nutrition in our schools based on the best available scientific evidence and the Dietary Guidelines.”

This was not the only court decision to come out in favor of healthy school meals recently.

A coalition of states, including New York, California, Illinois, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Vermont, and the District of Columbia, separately challenged the rollback in the District Court for the Southern District of New York. They also saw a victory when the court allowed their lawsuit to move forward after determining that USDA’s rollback could lead to adverse health impacts in children, thus raising state healthcare costs. The states therefore showed they would be injured by the rollback and demonstrated legal standing to challenge the reversal.

This win comes at a propitious time. USDA proposed a second round of rollbacks to the school food nutrition standards.

The new rollbacks would allow less fruit and less variety of vegetables in school meals, likely leading to children being fed more starchy vegetables they already overconsume, like potatoes. Earthjustice, and many other groups commented, as did American Heart Association, American Public Health Association, FoodCorps, MomsRising, and National Education Association, strongly opposing them.

USDA relies on the same groundless claim that the rollbacks are needed to reduce food waste and to make school meals appealing to students. But a nationwide poll found that more than 70% of parents of school-age children support the healthier standards. Furthermore, a recent assessment by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Healthy Eating Research Program concluded that the rollbacks would harm student’s health and academic performance as well as be most likely to impact students from low-income families at schools that are majority black or Hispanic and in rural areas.

While we hope the administration will follow nutrition science, we and our allies stand ready to fight for healthy school meals if they choose otherwise.

Based in New York, Surbhi was an associate attorney with the Sustainable Food and Farming Program from 2019 - 2022.

Earthjustice’s Sustainable Food and Farming program aims to make our nation’s food system safer and more climate friendly.