President Biden in the first days of his presidency has acted quickly to issue an executive order to significantly increase federal food assistance for millions of hungry families. It is reported in the Washington Post that the USDA will be asked to allow states to increase SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, commonly known as food stamps, and that benefits awarded through a school meals program for low-income students started during the pandemic will be increased by 15 percent.
In the Washington Post article (dated 1/22/21), President Biden to increase federal food benefits among executive actions aimed at stabilizing U.S. economy, reporters Jeff Stein and Laura Reiley also note that President Biden “will ask the USDA to consider beginning the process of revising the Thrifty Food Plan” which is the basis for determining SNAP benefits. The reporters cite the approval of Lisa Davis, senior vice president of Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign, who emphasized that the metrics for determining food stamp benefits were “out of date with the economic realities most struggling households face.”
This breaking news also gives hope that Obama-era standards for improving the school breakfast and school lunch programs, which the Trump administration recently sought to unravel by lessening requirements concerning whole grains and sodium, will remain intact. But for the successful litigation by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and the Chesapeake Institute for Local Sustainable Food & Agriculture (which operates Healthy School Food Maryland) against the (i) USDA, (ii) now former United States Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, (iii) the Food and Nutrition Service and (iv) Food and Nutrition Service Administrator Brandon Lipps, a new rule promulgated during the Trump era, according to CSPI, would have gutted key nutrition standards for the school breakfast and lunch program.
During the administration of former president Barack Obama, the USDA commissioned the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Nutrition Standards for National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs (the “Committee”) to provide recommendations for the revision of the nutrition and food-related standards and requirements for these programs. In its School Meals Report published in 2010, the Committee recommended a gradual approach to improving the sodium and whole grain content in school meals.
The ultimate goal for sodium intake recommended (based on age group and meal) was set between 430 mg and 470 mg for breakfast and between 640 mg and 740 mg for lunch. But intermediate targets spanning a ten-year period were also set. The School Meals Report also recommended incremental increases in the minimum percentage of grains required to be whole grain-rich so that the proportion of whole grain-rich foods in school meals would exceed 50% within three years.
After a notice and comment period, the Obama-era USDA promulgated in early 2012 a final rule, Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs in harmony with The School Meals Report.
For sodium, this 2012 Rule established a ten-year, three-phased schedule for reducing sodium levels based on age group and meal and meeting the final sodium target goal of between 430 mg and 470 mg for breakfast and between 640 mg and 740 mg for lunch by the school year 2022-2023. For whole grains, the 2012 Rule required that 50% of all grain products offered in school meals be whole grain-rich during the school year 2013-2014 and for school year 2014-2015 and beyond, it required that 100% of grain products be whole grain-rich.
However, Congress reacted to the 2012 Rule by enacting a series of riders to appropriations that allowed states to grant exemptions from the 100% whole grain-rich requirements for School Food Authorities that demonstrated hardship, including financial hardship, in procuring specific whole grain products which are acceptable to the students and compliant with the whole grain rich requirements so long as they met the 50% whole grain requirement. With regard to sodium intake, through the school year 2017-2018, the sodium target was eased to between 540 mg and 640 mg for breakfast and between 1230 mg and 1460 mg for lunch.
During the Trump administration, the USDA issued an Interim Final Rule in 2017 which extended the sodium and whole grain flexibilities for the school meal programs. On December 12, 2018, the USDA issued a Final Rule, Child Nutrition Programs: Flexibilities for Milk, Whole Grains, and Sodium Requirements, without issuing a notice of a proposed rule and allowing required comment procedures which USDA asserted was impracticable.
This procedural failure resulted in the vacating of the USDA’s 2018 Final Rule by United States District Judge George J. Hazel, who granted Summary Judgment on a motion brought by the plaintiffs CSPI and Healthy School Foods Maryland and remanded to the USDA for further proceedings. Ironically, Judge Hazel rejected the plaintiffs other contentions, including their assertion that the USDA’s 2018 Rule was inconsistent with federal law or was arbitrary decision making. Nonetheless, with the change in administration in Washington, DC, this attempt to roll back nutrition standards on whole grains and sodium in school meals by the Trump USDA has failed. Given the obesity crisis, we say Hallelujah.
Vigilance is required to avoid replacing balanced school meals with food like pizza, burgers, french fries and other food high in calories, saturated fat or sodium. We encourage the Biden USDA to vigorously support the National Farm to School Network which has grown from a handful of sites in the late 1990s to more than 42,000 schools in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and U.S. Territories – or 42% of all schools – benefiting more than 23.6 million children.
(Frank W. Barrie, 1/22/21)