Less healthy foods and beverages with more salt and calories might soon return to America’s school cafeterias under a rule issued recently by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Under the rule released in November, school food service programs can now include 1 percent flavored milk and refined grains instead of whole-grain rich products. The USDA also announced at the time that it would further delay requirements to continue to lower the amount of sodium served in school meals that was scheduled to go into effect with the 2017-2018 school year.

The American Heart Association and nutrition experts are urging the USDA to consider the progress made under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act rather than lowering nutrition standards, and to support schools in their efforts to provide healthier meal options. The USDA is accepting comments until Jan. 29.

Dr. Katie Wilson, who served as a Deputy Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services during the Obama administration, said these abrupt changes to school nutrition policies undermine the opportunity to teach children lifelong healthy eating habits.

“Every child deserves good nutrition in schools, just like they deserve a good education,” said Wilson.

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said in November that the new rule reflects feedback from food service experts and school leaders about the burden of meeting the nutrition standards required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and adopted by the USDA in 2012.

Today, more than 99 percent of schools participating in the National School Lunch Program meet its nutrition standards, up from 14 percent in 2009-2010.

“Schools want to offer food that students actually want to eat. It doesn’t do any good to serve nutritious meals if they wind up in the trashcan,” Secretary Perdue said in a statement.

But Wilson and other nutrition advocates aren’t convinced food waste is a good reason to change the nutrition guidelines for schools.

Much of the waste can be reduced by changing the way fruits and vegetables are presented and prepared, as well as making sure lunch is served at an appropriate time of day, providing enough time to eat, and having recess before the meal, Wilson said.

Some reports indicate that children are throwing away less of their entrees and vegetables. A 2014 study found that after implementation of the nutrition standards, entrée and vegetable consumption increased by about 16 percent.

Rather than lowering the nutrition standards, Wilson said the government should focus on solutions that don’t sacrifice children’s health. For example, farm-to-school programs, such as the grant program administered by the USDA, have allowed children to experience hands-on nutrition lessons.

American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown was critical of the new rule, saying it “deserves an ‘F.’”

Brown said in a statement, “This new rule is described as an effort to give the nation’s schools more ‘flexibility’ on what foods to serve our children. But the truth is it would revoke school nutrition standards that will help kids attain better long-term health and academic success.”

A 2017 California study found that, on average, children who received healthier school meal options scored better on end-of-year academic tests.

As for long-term health, one-third of U.S. children are currently overweight or obese. Yet by 2025, a 2015 study estimates that healthy nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools could prevent more than 2 million cases of childhood obesity over the previous decade.

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