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Rollback of Obama-era regulations cheered by some, chided by others

She can't speak for every area district, but Brenda Collenberger knows this much: In 14 years of planning K-8 lunches in St. Joseph, "junk food" was never on the menu.

Not even before 2012, when her kitchen and others in the federally-subsidized meal program had to comply with new regulations in the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. The initiative, championed by then-first lady Michelle Obama, called for sch-ools to scale back on sodium and incorporate more whole grains and vegetables.

"I think Michelle Obama was thinking about schools down South, like in Alabama, where they were still serving chips and soda," Collenberger said. "But I wasn't serving junk. I never did."

So when the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced earlier this month that it would roll back some of the Obama-era regulations for school lunches, Collenberger said she was relieved.

It's been six years, but she still vividly remembers some confusion over the specific new standards imposed by the USDA.

Among other things, it required districts to regularly incorporate specific vegetable categories into lunches, use 100 percent whole-grain products (right down to breading for chicken), reduce sodium levels and only serve fat-free flavored milk.

For districts that contract out their food services to companies like Aramark, the changes were more subtle. For Collenberger — the point person for procuring USDA-compliant food items, creating new menus and serving the meals — it was, in a word, "hard" for the 27-year district employee.

In the early years of the HHFKA implementation, she attended a convention with other school nutrition and lunch directors across the state.

When it came time to go over the new rules for vegetables, and the presenter brought up chickpeas as an acceptable option in the legume category, Collenberger said, some "people were getting their phones out and Googling" what chickpeas were and how they could be served.

To this day, legumes remain a difficult category for Collenberger when it comes to planning menus.

The same goes for items that meet the "dark, leafy greens" requirement, although she said she figured out she could rely on romaine lettuce.

"I serve a lot of carrots," she said. "Beans are the hardest. I tried doing baked beans with hot dogs. Green beans aren't a bean anymore — they're on the 'other vegetable' list."

Her job will get a little easier under the new system, which allows districts to once more serve "whole grain-rich" products (at least 50 percent whole grains versus the former 100-percent requirement) and 1 percent flavored milk. And efforts to reduce sodium in school lunches have been halted until the 2024 school year, perthe USDA's announcement.

'A beautiful thing'

By definition, it is a rollback. But the Illinois School Nutrition Association would rather you didn't call it that.

"The reality is that people love to use the word rollback, but that gets political," ILSNA Executive Director Megan Gibbons said. "It's flexibility."

Gibbons described the plight of districts statewide to not only find compliant items (such as whole-grain chicken breading) but also serve them in a way that's appealing to students.

In the Chicago-area school district where Gibbons is based, she said mac-and-cheese — once considered a menu staple — hasn't been served in two years since district officials decided the "whole-grain, low sodium and low-fat" options they made weren't palatable.

Nearly 20 percent of the 99,000 school districts across the country that participate in the federal program had applied for exemptions to the whole-grain rule in particular, according to USDA data for the current school year. The items most often requested for exemption included pasta, tortillas, biscuits and grits.

"What's happened with the USDA is that they're giving us flexibility, and we are going back to that 50 percent whole grain requirement," Gibbons said. "That's a beautiful thing from IlSNA's perspective. It gives us good flexibility."

Not everyone agrees: A day after the Dec. 6 announcement, the American Heart Association released a statement of its own decrying the rollback, noting that the majority of districts nationwide were in full compliance with the regulations.

"When it comes to our children's health, there should be no 'flexibility,'" the association said. "USDA's decision to weaken the standards — despite overwhelming opposition — threatens to reverse our progress toward ensuring our nation's children receive healthy meals at school that help them attain better long-term health and academic success."

And although Gibbons said items like whole-grain pasta haven't been "well-received" in her district — Collenberger described a similarly cold welcome from St. Joseph students — there are 100 percent whole-grain items that she'll continue to serve. But it will be up to individual districts to make those calls now.

'A bucket of slop'

There's a meme that UI Nutrition Education Specialist Leia Flure especially hates.

"I do hear a lot of people saying, 'Oh, school lunches are disgusting' and part of that is those posts that show lunches from around the world — they're beautifully plated and then it's like a bucket of slop from the USA," she said.

"That's not how it is. Parents are like 'that's not what it looked like when I was in school.' They color how their kids are going to look at the meal."

Flure's distaste for that juxtaposition stems from a number of things. For one thing, she said, the oft-repeated mantra that school lunches — especially those served after the HHFKA was implemented — fail to please student palettesis "definitely overstated."

Dialogue about lunch waste can also be strewn with misinformation as well, she said. Collenberger, for instance, had wondered about waste increase in her own district, when she'd order specific vegetables, then see them hit the trash, uneaten.

"Honestly, because of those requirements, the meals the kids are getting now are way healthier than they were before, and a lot of people think there's more waste, but that's not true," she said. "Waste has remained about the same."

Hype surrounding how much students hate school lunches is exaggerated, Flure said, and kids aren't as unwilling to eat healthy food as some adults might assume.

"I don't know how much I buy the whole 'kids won't accept it' thing," she said, adding that she's the parent of a picky eater herself. "It takes time for kidsto accept new food. We've gotten to the point where students have accepted it, and they won't change."

Even items like funnel cakes, served at some school breakfasts, aren't as bad as one might think, and that's partia-lly due to USDA regulations.

"I visited a schoolwho had mini corn dogs, and a lot of people would see that and say, 'Look what they were serving in school,' but the products they use in school meals are different," Flure said. "The nutrition formulations are different. The meat was a blend of chicken and turkey and then whole grain breading. It's not like something you'll get from the state fair.

"There are a lot of food companies that manufacture products specifically for school nutrition programs. School nutrition is big business."

'Benefit for teachers'

It's that business aspect that had Collenberger, Gibbons, the ILSNA and its national counterpart worried.

"Despite extensive efforts to boost consumption of healthy school meals, student lunch participation continues to gradually decline, as nearly 2 million fewer students choose school lunch since updated nutrition standards took effect," the national School Nutrition Association said in a statement of support of the USDA's decision. "School nutrition professionals have made tremendous progress in improving student diets, but the pace and degree of menu changes under updated nutrition standards were more than some students would accept."

And when paid lunch sales drop, Gibbons said, a socioeconomic disparity is exacerbated, with the students who qual-ify for free/reduced price meals making up the majority of school lunch program participants.

"The biggest customer drop is in the paid meal category," she said. "The free kids continue to eat, but the paid participation has dropped at extremely low levels.

"We're always talking about closing the achievement gap but we've created this gap where we start to ostracize the kids picking up as the 'free kids,' which is absolutely what we don't want to do."

But Flure said research shows that students who participate in school lunch programs "have better outcomes — behavior, attendance, learning" and that kids were actually eating more fruits and vegetables as a result of the HHKA.

"It's a benefit for teachers as well," she said. "School lunches are healthy."

More than 30 million children are dependent on the $13.6 billion National School Lunch program for their free or reduced-price school meals. But no matter what the USDA school lunch or breakfast program looks like, Flure said it's never the whole story.

"They do get a lot of nutrition at school, but it's not all they eat during the day," she said. "We need to look more at all they're eating during the day, at home, or for snacks. School does play a big role, and I would argue if schools are going to provide a meal, it should be healthy."