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Nessel Opposes USDA Proposal Gutting Key Nutrition Standards For School Meals

LANSING – Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel recently joined a multistate coalition of 20 attorneys general in opposing the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) proposed rollbacks of nutrition standards for school meals. In their letter to the USDA, the AGs argue that the proposed rule would substantially weaken existing standards for the school meals that tens of millions of children rely on every day, and lacks any sound basis in nutrition science.

"Every student in our state who receives a school meal – whether it’s free, reduced, or paid -- deserves a healthy meal,” Nessel said. “For many of these children, it’s their main source of nutrition and an attempt to rob them of something so crucial to their well-being is unconscionable.”

By the end of the state’s fiscal year 2018-2019, the Michigan Department of Education’s school nutrition programs averaged more than 380,000 students who ate breakfast and approximately 750,000 students who ate lunch daily.

In 2012, the USDA adopted healthier nutrition standards for school meals. According to the USDA’s own research, these standards have demonstrably improved the nutritional quality of the school breakfasts and lunches on which so many children in this country rely. Unfortunately, the proposed rule would significantly weaken these standards. Specifically, the coalition opposes the USDA’s proposal to:  

  • Reduce the required minimum weekly servings of the “red/orange” and “other” vegetable groups in school lunches, such as tomatoes and carrots;
  • Cut in half the minimum daily requirements of fruit servings in school breakfasts served in settings other than cafeterias;  
  • Eliminate the prohibition on synthetic trans fats in school meals without assurance that they have been prohibited in the U.S. food supply;  
  • Allow smaller school districts to, in effect, serve their youngest students meals with calorie and sodium levels appropriate only for older students; and  
  • Allow schools to offer students flavored water that contains artificial, calorie-free sweeteners and other artificial additives and that might undercut important milk consumption by students.    

Since these changes do not follow established nutritional standards or strict scientific evidence for such recommendations, it would undermine school programs that teach lifelong healthy eating habits across the state of Michigan.

Furthermore, poorer nutritional standards would have an adverse financial impact on the portion of Medicaid funded by the state due to the likelihood of negative health outcomes for students and in turn affect the long term health of some state residents as they grow older.

The National School Lunch Program – established in 1946 – is a federally subsidized program that provides students with healthy, balanced meals in schools at low- or no-cost. In 1966, the School Breakfast Program was added. Since that time, Congress has taken action to ensure that program’s nutritional guidelines keep current with the best scientific evidence with the most recent modernization occurring in 2010 with the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which led to the 2012 USDA regulations.

In 2019, nearly 30 million children consumed nearly five billion school lunches and more than 14 million children ate school breakfasts under the national school lunch and breakfast programs. School meal programs are especially important for children in low-income families; in 2019, more than 74 percent of school lunches and 85 percent of school breakfasts provided to schoolchildren in the United States were offered free or at a reduced price. That number is likely to increase as a result of the contraction of the U.S. economy due to the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning that even more children will be dependent on school meals as their primary source of nutrition. Further, according to the USDA’s own figures, a disproportionately high share of students participating in the national school lunch and breakfast programs are black or Hispanic.

Nessel joins the attorneys general of California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, Vermont, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia in submitting this letter.

A copy of the letter is available here.