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Nutrition quality scores for school lunches increased by 41 percent between 2009 and 2015.

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It looks like Michelle Obama’s school nutrition push really has changed the way kids eat, despite a partial rollback of some of its key provisions last year.

The United States Department of Agriculture last week quietly released a study that showed the overall nutritional quality of school lunches increased by 41 percent between the 2009-2010 school year and the 2014-2015 school year.

It also found that servings of whole grains, greens, and beans have increased across the board, while refined grains, empty calories, and sodium decreased.

Bettina Elias Siegel, a writer who focuses on school lunch, pointed out on her website that the results of the study directly contradict some of the Trump administration’s key talking points. In December, when Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced he would weaken the standards that govern whole grains, sodium, and flavored milk, he rationalized the change by asserting that kids simply weren’t eating the healthier school meals. His talking points, Siegel points out, parroted those of the School Nutrition Association, an interest group that represents “lunch ladies,” gets most of its money from the food industry, and has opposed the whole grains and sodium standards since 2013.

The results of the study directly contradict some of the Trump administration’s key talking points.

Elias Siegel also notes that the agency did not formally announce the release of the study until she inquired about it days after its publication. The agency did send out a press release a few hours after her call, she writes, noting that she expected the timing was a coincidence. No one in The New Food Economy newsroom received the press release even though we collectively subscribe to a wide variety of USDA mailing lists; we found about it via Washington Post columnist Tamar Haspel’s Twitter account. It seems fair to say the agency is not trumpeting these achievements.

The Trump administration’s December 2018 rollback of the Obama-era nutrition standards was based on the idea that it’s just not practical to expect kids to eat whole grains and fat-free chocolate milk. Anecdotal reports seemed to back this up: A tongue-in-cheek #ThanksMichelleObama social media campaign emerged in 2014 to ridicule the meals served under the new standards. School food professionals complained that students weren’t eating the new lunches.

In a 2017 press release titled “Ag Secretary Perdue Moves to Make Schools Great Again,” the secretary said that “if kids aren’t eating the food, and it’s ending up in the trash, they aren’t getting any nutrition — thus undermining the intent of the program.” Yet the new study shows that the healthier food didn’t wind up in the trash can. Overall, the amount of food wasted after it was served—a metric that determines whether or not kids are eating what’s on their tray—didn’t change much at all. (Food waste in schools is still generally pretty high—about one-third of the vegetables on lunch trays observed for the study went into the trash.)

It may be another several years before we find out whether or not the recent regulatory rollbacks will trigger a backslide in the nutritional improvements outlined in the study. Hopefully USDA will decide to let us know.

H. Claire Brown

Claire Brown is a staff writer for The New Food Economy focusing on food policy and the environment. Her reporting has won awards from the Newswomen’s Club of New York and the New York Press Club. She is based in Brooklyn. She can be reached via email at claire.brown@newfoodeconomy.org or on Twitter at @hclaire_brown.

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