The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently proposed a rule that would that would weaken school nutrition standards, adversely affecting the ability of school-aged children across the country to have the nutrition they need to thrive. Recognizing the negative impact of the proposed policy on the health and education of children across the United States, NYSHealth submitted the following comments urging that the rule not be implemented:

April 22, 2020

The Honorable Sonny Perdue
Secretary
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Ave., SW
Washington, DC 20250

Re: Docket No. FNS-2019-0007; Simplifying Meal Service and Monitoring Requirements in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs

Dear Secretary Perdue:

The New York State Health Foundation (NYSHealth) appreciates the opportunity to respond to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) proposed rule, “Simplifying Meal Service and Monitoring Requirements in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs” (85 FR 4094), published in the Federal Register on January 23, 2020.

The proposed rule undermines the significant progress that has been made to ensure that students have access to nutritious and balanced meals; undercuts current scientifically based school food nutrition standards; reduces incentives for students to make healthy choices in the cafeteria by allowing for more unhealthy foods like pizza and french fries to be sold à la carte; and shrinks the variety of nutritious vegetables available at lunch.

The goal of the National School Lunch Program is to provide nutritionally balanced meals to school-age children, regardless of income, to support their mental and physical health and well-being. NYSHealth believes that this rule, if implemented, would weaken school nutrition standards, adversely affecting the ability of school-age children across the country to have the nutrition they need to thrive. We urge that the proposed rule be withdrawn.

NYSHealth is a private foundation that works to improve the health of all New Yorkers, especially the most vulnerable. Our program called Building Healthy Communities supports expanding access to nutritious, affordable foods, including improving the quality of school food. Our work has provided us with in-depth knowledge of how the nutritional content of food has widespread ramifications on the health equity of children, their families, and the communities they live in.

In New York State, 1 in 3 children are overweight or obese while 1 in 6 struggle with hunger—and the same child often faces both.[1] These children are more likely to face challenges that result in poor academic achievement and poor mental and physical health. For many of these children, healthy school food is critical because children may consume up to half of their calories during the school day.[2]

In 2010, with bipartisan support, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), with a goal to ensure that “every American child had access to the nutrition they need to grow into healthy adults.”[3] Since 2012, school meals have included more fruit, more vegetables, more whole grains, less saturated fat and sodium, more limits on calories based on age, and standards for items sold à la carte and in vending machines.[4] Researchers estimated that these improvements could prevent more than 2 million cases of childhood obesity.[5]

In fact, USDA’s own data show the positive results of HHFKA: more than 90% of schools report that they are successfully meeting the updated nutrition standards; kids are eating more fruits and vegetables; meals are providing children more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and low-fat dairy, as well as less sugar, fat, and sodium; school lunch participation and school meal revenue have increased; and food waste has not increased.[6]

Despite the evidence, this is not USDA’s first effort to weaken school nutrition standards. In 2018, USDA implemented a final rule that eliminated the strongest sodium-reduction targets, cut the whole grain-rich standard in half, and allowed flavored low-fat milk to be sold without a calorie and/or added sugar limit. Even though 99% of public comments opposed these rollbacks, USDA finalized a rule that was even more harmful than the version initially proposed. Just this month, a federal court struck down that rule.[7]

The current proposed rule not only threatens children’s health, but also is a significant departure from science-based standards. It will result in more unhealthy food being served in schools. For example, potatoes are the most commonly consumed vegetable in schools, accounting for 21% of all vegetable consumption. This rule would allow students to consume an additional three cups of french fries per week at lunch.[8] The proposal would also allow schools to offer meat or grains interchangeably, while HHFKA required schools to offer a minimum amount of grains in order to also offer meat. Removing the current grain requirement at breakfast could mean more processed meats will be served.[9]

New York State is home to the largest public school system in the country in New York City. Almost three-quarters of NYC public school students are low income and come from communities that suffer disproportionately from health disparities.[10] Despite the City’s budget limitations, its Department of Education has exceeded federal school meal requirements under HHFKA.[11] Weakening school meal requirements could exacerbate existing inequities for our most vulnerable students.

Now more than ever, it is important that current school food standards are enforced. With the onset of COVID-19, millions of school-age children, their families, and now seniors are receiving grab-and-go school meals across the country. The USDA has acted quickly and granted waivers to ensure that vulnerable populations can continue to have a consistent source of healthy, nutritious food while sheltering in place.[12]

School food nutrition requirements should be consistent with evidence-based, federal dietary guidelines.[13] The New York State Health Foundation opposes the proposed rule, which combined with previous rollbacks to the quality of school food, will harm the health and education of our nation’s children.

Respectfully submitted,

David Sandman, Ph.D.
President and CEO
New York State Health Foundation

 

[1] Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “State of Childhood Obesity.” October 2019. https://stateofchildhoodobesity.org/states/ny/. Accessed April 2020.

[2] U.S. Department of Agriculture. School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study-III. Washington, DC: USDA; 2007.

[3] U.S. Department of Agriculture. Fact Sheet: Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act School Meals Implementation. May 2014. https://www.fns.usda.gov/pressrelease/2014/009814. Accessed April 2020.

[4] U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.” November 2013. https://www.fns.usda.gov/school-meals/healthy-hunger-free-kids-act. Accessed April 2020.

[5] Gortmaker SL, Wang YC, Long MW, et al. Three Interventions that Reduce Childhood Obesity Are Projected to Save More Than They Cost to Implement. Health Aff. 2015;34:1932-9.

[6] U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.” November 2013. https://www.fns.usda.gov/school-meals/healthy-hunger-free-kids-act. Accessed April 2020.

[7] Child Nutrition Programs: Flexibilities for Milk, Whole Grains, and Sodium Requirements, 83 Fed. Reg. 63775, Dec. 12, 2018.

[8] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2015.

[9] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2015.

[10] Shapiro, Eliza. “Desegregating N.Y. Schools Was His Top Priority. What Happened?” New York Times. August 23, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/23/nyregion/nyc-schools-chancellor-carranza-.html. Accessed April 2020.

[11] N.Y.C. Department of Education. Welcome to the Office of Food and Nutrition Serviceshttps://www.opt-osfns.org/schoolfoodny/AboutUs/aboutus.htm#:~:text=SchoolFood%20serves%20around%20850%2C000%20meals,the%20students%20or%20their%20parents. Accessed April 2020.

[12] U.S. Department of Agriculture. COVID-19 Congregant Meal Waivers and Q&As on Summer Meal Delivery Using Exiting Authority. April 2020. https://www.fns.usda.gov/sfsp/covid-19-meal-delivery. Accessed April 2020.

[13] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. https://health.gov/our-work/food-and-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines. Accessed April 2020.

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