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Improving school meals was among Michelle Obama’s key initiatives during her tenure as first lady. Since then, the Trump administration has rolled back Obama-era school nutrition policies they argued went too far and were ineffective. Now, the Department of Agriculture has made additional major changes. Crystal FitzSimons of the Food Research and Action Center joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.
When Michelle Obama was first lady, one of her key initiatives was to push for healthier nutrition and food choices. That translated into a change for public school lunches around the country.
But the Trump administration and some state officials argue that the Obama administration went too far, and this administration has been rolling back some of those moves.
As Amna Nawaz tells us, today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed additional changes.
That's right, Judy.
The Trump administration already changed the Obama standards for whole grains, sodium and nonfat milk. Today, it approached new rules that would role back the amount of fruits and vegetables required at school breakfasts and lunches.
These programs feed nearly 30 million students around the country. Some advocates are worried about these changes.
Crystal FitzSimons is among them. She's the director of school and out of school programs at the Food Research and Action Center, an advocacy group that targets hunger and undernutrition.
Welcome back to the "NewsHour."
Thank you for having me on today.
So, the justification from the administration is, look, the Obama era rules led to low participation from schools and a lot more food waste.
The agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue, actually said, this is commonsense flexibility that these programs need to continue to provide nutritious school lunches and breakfasts.
What do you say to that?
Well, I would say that that's not right.
I think that we need to be providing the most healthy meals possible. The changes that were made under the Obama administration really did a lot to help improve the nutrition quality of the meals that are being served. And we know that more than 30 million kids are relying on school lunch each day for healthy lunches.
And we should be providing the healthiest lunches possible.
But was there, as a result of those regulations, low participation and an increase in food waste? Do we know that?
No, we know that there is participation, that participation has been remaining pretty strong.
And we know that there are lots of things that contribute to kids not eating their lunches. Kids really do need to have enough time in order to eat their lunches. And too many schools actually do not provide enough time during the lunch hour.
And we know that there's millions of kids who live in households that struggle against hunger. And we know that we have a huge obesity epidemic. And we really need to be working hard to make sure that we're providing fruits and vegetables, healthy food, whole grains, low sodium, all those good things that are going to allow kids to get the nutrition they need to learn and be healthy.
Help me put sort of a finer point on it here to understand what this looks like.
So, previously, a standard breakfast, say, under the previous rules, they had to provide one cup of fruit. What would be different now under the new rules?
So now they would be required to provide just half-a-cup.
And so there would be less fruit on the tray.
And that flexibility — we want kids to be eating fruit. We want the schools to be offering healthy fruit. We want them to be introducing fruit to kids and different kinds of fruit. And we want schools to be working hard to make sure that they're providing appealing meals.
A lot of the headlines are talking about burgers and french fries as well. Under the previous rules, schools had to provide at lunchtime at least a sort of variety of vegetables.
What's new? What would be different?
So there's more flexibility in providing vegetables. So we would expect to see more french fries on the school lunch tray.
And so here's the question, because, obviously, you're assuming that they will take the lower nutritional value option, if given the option here.
I want to put to you, though, the statement from the School Nutrition Association, right? This is the organization of cafeteria workers, all the businesses that provide the food to those schools. They welcomed these changes.
And they said, look, the upgraded nutrition standards for school meals have been a tremendous success overall. But then they cited the same things the administration did, saying that there has been reduced participation and higher costs.
You're assuming that they will provide less healthy options, but might they uphold the same nutritional standards even if they're not required to?
So there are plenty of schools across the country that are not going to roll back the standards. There are a lot of school nutrition departments and a lot of school districts that are really committed to providing healthy meals.
But we want to make sure that kids in Oregon have as healthy meals as kids in Illinois, and kids in Alabama need to have as healthy meals as kids in California.
We really — it's a national program. We need national standards, and we need to make sure that kids are getting healthy food.
When you look at the student population, you know who participates and who relies on a lot of these programs.
Who are you worried is going to be most affected by these potential changes and how?
So, the vast majority of kids who participate in the school lunch program are low-income and do receive either free or reduced-price school lunches. And we know that those meals are actually often the meals that they're going to be relying on and their only meals.
So we want to make sure they're healthy. And we need to make sure that they have access to them. And schools can do a lot to reduce — can reduce plate waste by making sure that they do have enough time to eat.
So there are strategies. Schools are doing salad bars. Schools are doing farm to school. There's really wonderful, creative ways that schools across the country are making sure that kids want to eat their fruits and vegetables. And we want to make sure that's happening in every school.
And we do not want to see these rollbacks to the school nutrition standards.
Just a few seconds left.
I should mention this is a proposed new rule, right?
It is, yes.
It goes into an open comment period in the coming days.
Do you see this as a done deal? Do you think there's any way that these rules don't go through?
Well, I think it's not a done deal if everybody responds and submits comments.
So there's a huge opportunity here to weigh in on this, to let people know that we don't want to see these standards rolled back. And people should really take that step and take the time to let the administration know that they want healthy meals in their school breakfast and school lunch programs.
This is such an important topic.
Crystal FitzSimons of the Food Research and Action Center, thanks for being with us again.
Thank you for having me.
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