ATLANTA — On a sweltering morning in July, Sonny Perdue, the newly minted secretary of Agriculture, strode across the stage of a convention hall here packed with 7,000 members of the School Nutrition Association, who had gathered for their annual conference.
After reminiscing about the cinnamon rolls baked by the lunchroom ladies of his youth, he delivered a rousing defense of school food-service workers who were unhappy with some of the sweeping changes made by the Obama administration. The amounts of fat, sugar and salt were drastically reduced. Portion sizes shrank. Lunch trays had to hold more fruits and vegetables. Snacks and food sold for fundraising had to be healthier.
“Your dedication and creativity was being stifled,” Perdue said. “You were forced to focus your attention on strict, inflexible rules handed down from Washington. Even worse, you experienced firsthand that the rules were failing.”
Perdue then outlined how his department was loosening some of those rules. He finished with a folksy story about a child who asked whether Perdue could make school lunches great again.
Some in the audience cheered. Some walked out. School food was not going to escape the sharp political divisions that began to simmer in the Obama years and have been laid bare by the election of President Donald Trump.
As a new school year begins, many Americans are wondering what lies ahead. Will Perdue’s promises have an impact? Will the Obama-era changes be rolled back? And just what will children be eating this year?
So far, one thing is clear: School-food leaders on both sides of the political spectrum — most of whom are trying to avoid politics altogether — say the Trump administration’s efforts are unlikely to affect what they agree is a powerful and well-established movement to improve school lunches. Since the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act took effect in 2012, most of the key players have bought in: food producers, schools and even the children.
That’s why, in part, Perdue’s comments about local control resonated: Many districts are already improving school meals without federal intervention.
“All the conversations about school meals have been unnecessarily polarized,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, an advocacy organization that represents 57,000 school-food professionals and counts many of the country’s largest food companies among its supporters. “People in every district are really dedicated to making sure kids are getting the healthiest food possible.”
Certainly, what a healthful school meal looks like varies tremendously, depending on geography and one’s definition of health. With more than 30 million lunches being served every day, the taste and quality can hinge on something as simple as the attitude of a principal or a lack of proper kitchen equipment. Large, urban schools face different challenges from small rural ones. Some people see nothing wrong with serving breaded chicken strips. Others have tried to eliminate them completely.
Still, by most accounts, school lunches in America are better than they have been in decades. Cooking from scratch is on the rise; salad bars have been added to tens of thousands of schools, and a federally supported farm-to-school program is operating in 42,500 schools.
“We have been through a period of big changes, and there are a lot of people who don’t like big changes,” said Dayle Hayes, an author and school nutrition educator in Montana. “But what we need to remember is that what schools are doing reflects the broader food trends in this country. It is just getting better by the day everywhere.”
Many questions remain, though. Here are answers to a few:
Q: Has the Trump administration begun to dismantle the Obama initiatives?
A: Much was made about changes to the federal school-food rules that Perdue announced in May after taking over the Department of Agriculture. But the changes (to rules set forth as part of the 2010 legislation) are actually quite minor.
“What he said didn’t change anything, honestly,” Hayes said.
The changes fall into three areas. The first involves how much whole grain the federal government requires in school meals that qualify for at least some federal reimbursement. Under rules set by the Obama administration, buns, pasta and other foods made from grain must be at least half whole grain. Districts can apply for exceptions, which are especially popular with regard to regional foods that are traditionally made with white flour.
“In the South, they are very worried about biscuits,” Hayes said. “In areas with large Asian populations, they are really worried about brown rice. In the Northeast, they are worried about bagels.” Whole-wheat tortillas are troublesome because they tend to crack when folded. “And everyone had a problem with pasta,” Pratt-Heavner said.
The Trump administration measures merely allow districts more time to apply for exemptions, although Perdue indicated that more changes could be in store.
Milk is another point of contention. The Obama-era rules allowed milk with 1 percent fat but said flavored milk must be nonfat. Perdue’s change allows schools to serve flavored milk with 1 percent fat. But cafeteria administrators say 1 percent flavored milk isn’t readily available because dairy processors have already geared up to make milk in school-size containers based on the Obama regulations. Besides, they say, children have become used to nonfat chocolate milk.
The third, and perhaps most significant, change slows the imposition of new requirements that would have greatly limited salt. Districts still have to reduce sodium, but not as aggressively — a move that has won widespread support.
Q: That all sounds pretty abstract. So what are school meals like these days?
A: To a large degree, today’s school food closely mimics the fare that children have grown up eating in restaurants. It is engineered for a generation of young eaters who are more sophisticated about food than ever before.
Students are increasingly viewed as customers to be wooed rather than as participants to be counted for federal reimbursement. As a result, food is fresher, and more foods are prepared from scratch.
Customization is big, so children are moving through cafeteria lines that mirror the kind of build-your-own-meal approach at Chipotle. Some schools are experimenting with ordering food through apps; others serve made-to-order subs, tacos and noodle bowls. Spice and sauce bars are popular, and precooked meals, while still predominant, seem to be losing popularity as even the largest districts begin to make their own pizza dough, salad dressings and sauces.
International dishes are becoming more popular — a reflection of changing demographics, the popularity of TV food shows and a generation of parents who have broadened their children’s palates. Think Thai-style fish tacos, spicy Korean barbecue and tikka masala.
Q: How much can schools rely on the federal government to improve food?
A: Not as much as they once did. The game is local now, with newly empowered chefs and parents joining in.
After the Obama-era rules took effect, some districts reported large drops in the number of children who participated. The food just wasn’t as tasty, students said. Many people blamed the stricter standards for fat, sugar and vegetable consumption, while others contended that the food simply needed to be prepared better.
The pushback against the federal regulations largely came from those who wanted local control, said Donna S. Martin, president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and director of the school nutrition program for Burke County Public Schools in Waynesboro, Georgia. “People want less regulation,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean people in every district in the country are not coming up with ways to make food better.”