NEW YORK -- After making a brief comeback on school lunch menus, white bread and other refined grains may be vanishing again when schools reopen after a federal court threw out the Trump administration’s rollback of school nutrition standards.
The U.S. district court in Maryland this week said the administration did not give adequate public notice of the change, which had gone into effect for this past school year. The ruling was in response to a lawsuit brought by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Healthy School Food Maryland.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture said it does not comment on ongoing litigation and it’s unknown how the agency will proceed. The agency oversees the national school lunch and breakfast programs, which serve millions of free and reduced-price meals daily.
For now, closed schools that have continued distributing meals during the coronavirus pandemic are operating under different standards and have been able to request flexibility on nutrition standards.
“None of this applies under the current situation. This is for when we resume post-pandemic school operations,” said Laura MacCleery, senior policy director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
But Diane Pratt-Heavner of the School Nutrition Association, which represents cafeteria operators and food suppliers, said tighter budgets and strained supply chains could make it even harder to meet stricter nutrition standards once schools resume.
“This is coming at a very difficult and uncertain time,” she said.
It’s the latest twist in the years-long clash over nutrition standards championed by former first lady Michelle Obama. The 2012 rules required schools to transition over time entirely to whole grain-rich options and gradually reduce sodium levels. But school lunch operators opposed the standards, saying new recipes were resulting in mushy pastas and cardboard-like pizzas, and that students were throwing away more food.
To allow cafeteria operators time to adapt, the USDA had been postponing compliance dates and granting waivers to temporarily let schools continue serving select refined grains.
Then in late 2018, the agency issued a rule saying it would give schools greater flexibility by reverting back to a previous standard that at least half of grains served to students be whole grain-rich. It also eliminated the final sodium target.
In the decision Monday, the Maryland court said the USDA had previously “spoke exclusively in terms of delaying compliance requirements, not abandoning the compliance requirements altogether."
Under the relaxed rule this school year, Pratt-Heavner said cafeteria operators had reported mostly sticking to the whole grain-rich foods they had already incorporated into their menus. But she said some took advantage of the option to serve some harder-to-replace refined grain items like biscuits and tortillas, without having to file paperwork.
The lawsuit by CSPI did not challenge the relaxed standard allowing low-fat chocolate milk. Previously, flavored milk had to be non-fat.
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