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Relaxed school lunch rules may mean fewer whole grains, more milk fat

Jacksonville school lunch

Students get lunch Tuesday at Jacksonville High School. The secretary of agriculture recently announced the suspension of some Obama-era rules on school lunches starting in July, which could mean a return to chocolate milk, less whole grain and more sodium in school lunches. (Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)

The Trump administration last week took a permanent step away from Obama-era rules designed to make school lunches healthier.

In Piedmont, the change means students will get to keep the chocolate milk they like to drink.

“I’ve already had students come to me and say, ‘This milk is better than what we had last year,’” said Pam Dempsey, director of the child nutrition program for Piedmont City Schools.

Dempsey is one of an unknown number of school administrators who tweaked their school menus last year after Trump administration officials announced plans to end some requirements of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, a 2010 law designed to get more healthy food into school lunches.

That law introduced whole-grain foods to some schools – and some students – for the first time and set targets for reducing fat and sodium in some foods. Critics of the law blame the changes for an overall decline in the numbers of kids choosing to eat cafeteria lunches.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue last year announced that he was temporarily relaxing rules requiring flavored milk in school to be fat free and requiring bread served in school lunchrooms to be “whole grain rich,” consisting of at least 50 percent whole grains.

In a declaration published last week, the department made those changes permanent. The rule change also put a hold on some federal targets for reducing sodium in school lunches.

Advocates for the changes said schools needed more flexibility, because the lunches they were offering were sometimes a hard sell.

“Student acceptance was the number one challenge in a lot of these school systems,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, a professional association for school nutrition officials.

Pratt-Heavner said schools have seen a lot of resistance to the brown bread and brown rice used in whole-grain foods, which doesn’t look like what students are accustomed to eating outside school. She said schools had made good progress in reducing sodium in school lunches, but faced a serious challenge with upcoming, stricter rules the USDA has now put on hold.

“If you add a little cheese and a little dressing to an entrée salad, you could easily exceed the sodium limits,” she said.

She cited declining participation in school lunch programs as a sign of resistance to the healthier lunches.  Schools served 30.5 million lunches served daily in the 2014 fiscal year, compared to 29.7 million in 2018, according to the USDA.

But closer to home, the numbers aren’t so clear.

Dempsey, the Piedmont school nutrition official, said Piedmont schools replaced nonfat chocolate milk with 1 percent chocolate milk when the rule change was announced last year. Without being asked, she said, kids noted that they liked the milk better.

But it didn’t halt a years-long decline in the number of students eating in the lunchroom. The food on the plate does matter; Dempsey says there’s a spike in lunch purchases when they serve crispitos, a meat-and-tortilla entree that is the school’s most popular food. But even though the formula for crispitos hasn’t changed, there are fewer customers on crispito days than there were in past years.

Anniston hasn’t seen the same decline.

“The only slump we had was in the first couple of years – because of the brown bread and the brown rolls,” said Ashley Alexander, director of child nutrition for Anniston City Schools.

Alexander said school lunch numbers have rebounded, and there’s no decline now in the percentage of students using the cafeteria. She noted that school lunch is free for every student in Anniston. With roughly 80 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch in past years, the school qualified for universal free lunch funding.

Alexander said there are no changes in the works for Anniston’s lunches. The school already has a contract for nonfat milk, she said. Switching to white bread would become a “nightmare” if the USDA later switched back to more stringent regulations, she said.

In Jacksonville, use of school lunches has actually gone up 5 percent between 2017 and 2018. Nutrition program director Stephanie Gossett said the state’s procurement officials have done a good job acquiring whole-wheat products that don’t have the brown-bread look that turns many of the students off.

She said Jacksonville makes many of its food products in-house, avoiding pre-packaged foods when they can. But she acknowledged that some of those foods can drive interest in school lunches — even if Gossett doesn’t care for them herself.

“Personally I look at crispitos and think ‘ick,’ but the kids love them,” she said.

The American Heart Association earlier this year put out a statement arguing that the regulations “jeopardize children’s health and well-being” and predicting that if the USDA chose to keep the more stringent regulations, it could reduce childhood obesity by 2 million cases by 2025.

“The evidence shows that these programs are successful, and children are starting to show better health outcomes because of it,” John Warner, president of the association, wrote in a letter to the USDA earlier this year.

Attempts to reach officials of the association weren’t successful Monday.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.