USDA Puts the Final Touches on Michelle Obama’s School-Nutrition Legacy

New finalized rules put limits on sugary drinks and junk food.

(Photo: Tom Grill/Getty Images)

Jul 29, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

A theory: The reason processed, perfectly packaged Lunchables—full of things such as watery ham, crackers, and cheese—became so popular is that they looked and tasted better than what school cafeterias served up in the 1990s. In middle school, my own choices were between old heat-lamp-warmed fries, wobbly chicken tenders, and pizza. Somehow, I survived off a diet of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and water, which the lunch powers that be at my school allowed me to eat five days a week for years.

Kids aren’t so unlucky today. School lunches now might include produce from a playground garden, fresh vegetables, cafeteria-made soups, and more. As for Lunchables? They may still be around, but many children have developed more discerning tastes. Much of this is owing to the success of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which sparked the first major school food reform in more than a decade. In addition to $4.5 billion in funding, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act sought to end childhood hunger by making school lunch free for more low-income kids, stopping childhood obesity with improved wellness policies, paying better attention to all foods—including snacks—sold during the school day, and providing better training for food-service professionals, many of whom reheated foods more often than they cooked them. Now, the USDA has finalized the last major rules of this program.

“Until this administration, school food was in the backwater,” said Toni Liquori, executive director of School Food Focus, a national advocacy group. “It wasn’t a concern to many people, but Michelle Obama made it hit center stage.”

As the Obama administration and the first lady prepare to leave the White House, they are putting the finishing touches on their school food legacy. On July 21, the USDA announced four new final rules that codify many of the school food policies Obama has championed. These rules build on the same goals of the original Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The Smart Snacks in School rule, which has been finalized, defines nutritional standards foods will have to meet to be sold or marketed in schools. (States, however, will maintain the ability to “allow limited exemptions to school-sponsored fundraisers during the school day,” according to a USDA statement.) Though these rules were implemented during the 2014–15 school year, they have been improved “based on public comments and lessons learned from implementation,” according to the USDA. The department is considering whether to allow full “good fat” foods such as avocado but has allowed the sale of “paired exempt foods” like the classic peanut butter and celery combo.

In tandem with Smart Snacks, a Local School Wellness Policy bans marketing junk food to kids by requiring that “any food or beverage that is marketed on school campuses during the school day meets the Smart Snacks standards.” This ends the reign of beverages like soda in favor of no-calorie flavored waters and bans doughnuts while welcoming granola bars.

The final two rules allow free lunch and breakfast to be given to all students—individual paperwork not required—at institutions with high poverty rates and improve oversight of all school lunch programs.

Reducing the burden of paperwork is important for both schools and parents because in the past, many kids who were eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches weren’t signed up for them. A free-for-all program bypasses this issue. Expansion of the free-lunch program has been a multistep process. In January 2016, the Obama administration launched a pilot program to test the Community Eligibility Program. The program has now been extended to cover more than 18,000 schools in high-poverty areas.

Yet school food still has a long way to go. “Too much of it is very highly processed because that’s what our food system is,” Liquori said. School food advocate Bettina Elias Siegel blogged at The Lunch Tray that the finalized rules leave a few major issues surrounding school food marketing unanswered. She writes that it’s unclear if “incentive programs” such as Box Tops for Education (which frequently promote the purchase and consumption of sugary cereals like Lucky Charms or Cocoa Puffs) or “copycat junk foods” (which are Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act–compliant variations on snacks sold in stores with unhealthier nutritional content) will be allowed.

“Do they take care of everything?” Liquori said of the new rules. “No. But even if improvements are modest, they continue to move in the right direction.”