Federal judge overturns Trump school nutrition rollback

The administration “completely changed its position” on key parts of school lunch reform without notifying the public. That broke the law. 

A federal judge has overturned rules that allow school meals to be sweeter, saltier, and less nutritious, finding that the Trump administration’s agriculture department wasn’t clear with the public about what it was doing.

Looser standards for sodium, whole grains, and flavored milk went into effect this fall, after a two-year rulemaking process. The problem, wrote Judge George J. Hazel of the U.S. District Court of Maryland this week, is that the Department of Agriculture, which oversees school nutrition, had “completely changed its position.” Key parts of those proposed standards had been significantly revised, in between unveiling them to the public in 2017 and finalizing them in 2019. 

Because those changes, which included gutting requirements around whole grains and salt levels in lunches, were made without sufficient public notice, the department violated the Administrative Procedure Act, the judge wrote in his decision Monday.

“With the pandemic, and schools being closed, it’s just ridiculous to think that we would want to weaken the standards, and make meals less healthy, when kids go back to school in the fall.”

Health advocates cheered Hazel’s ruling, which likely sends the nutrition standards back to the department for a new round of rulemaking and public input. 

“The public, by and large, wants school meals to stay healthy,” says Colin Schwartz, a legislative director with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the consumer watchdog that initially filed the lawsuit last year. “With the pandemic, and schools being closed, it’s just ridiculous to think that we would want to weaken the standards, and make meals less healthy, when kids go back to school in the fall.”

The Trump-supported standards, which USDA refers to as “school meal flexibilities,” were part of an ongoing effort to roll back Obama-era reforms in school nutrition, which were the most significant in decades. 

Trump’s agriculture secretary said the stricter standards made lunches less appealing and more expensive, and meals were getting trashed by unhappy students.

As part of the initial revamp, passed as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, schools that are federally reimbursed for serving breakfast and lunch have been required since 2015 to serve breads, tortillas and pastas made primarily with whole grains. Schools are also required to meet three sodium reduction targets, phased in over 10 years; the first target, which reduced intake by 10 percent, was implemented in 2014. And the only chocolate or strawberry milk served would have to be skim. In accordance with national dietary guidelines, schools were also required to serve more fruits and vegetables, and reduce saturated and trans fats in meals.

The reforms appear to be successful. Over a five-year period, the nutritional quality of school lunch increased by over 40 percent, and students ate more greens and beans, and fewer empty calories and refined grains. But months after he was sworn in, Trump’s agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue, said the stricter standards made lunches less appealing and more expensive, and meals were getting trashed by unhappy students. 

Perdue proposed hardship waivers for schools to opt out of serving whole-grain-rich meals, stalling the sodium reduction targets, and putting one-percent flavored milk back on the menu. “I wouldn’t be as big as I am today without chocolate milk,” Perdue told reporters

The changes were more dramatic when they were codified in 2019. Rather than giving out waivers, the whole-grain standard was halved for all schools. The second sodium reduction target of 30 percent was pushed back to 2025, and the final target of 50 percent was eliminated altogether. More recently, his department has moved to give schools more flexibility on vegetables.

The Trump-supported standards, which USDA refers to as “school meal flexibilities,” were part of an ongoing effort to roll back Obama-era reforms.

Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, an influential trade group that lobbied for the rollbacks on sodium and whole grains, said that overall, the Obama-era requirements are too strong.

“We were hearing from members across the board that student acceptance of certain whole-grain items was a challenge,” she said. “We really do want as many students as possible to eat school meals.”

In his decision, Judge Hazel wrote that USDA hadn’t been forthright in making rules. The interim rule, for instance, merely suggested delaying compliance around the sodium targets. But when the final rule was released, one of those targets was eliminated, a “fundamental difference” that was not “in character with the original scheme.”

Similarly, in the interim rule, schools would have been granted the option to apply for hardship exemptions to the whole-grain requirements. But in the final version, the waivers were gone—and so was the requirement for one-hundred percent whole grains. That, the judge wrote, was not a “logical outgrowth” of the interim rule, but a material and substantial departure.

The agriculture department, which has 60 days to appeal the decision, told The Counter it does not comment on pending litigation.

Sam Bloch is a staff writer for The Counter.