Maryland Court Reinstates School Nutrition Standards

April 20, 2020 by Tom Ramstack
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan at the National Governors Association Winter Meeting in Washington. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – The Trump administration must reinstate nutrition standards for school meals that the Agriculture Department eliminated in 2018, a federal court in Maryland ruled this week.

The plaintiffs were the Center for Science in the Public Interest as well as Healthy School Food Maryland.

The advocacy groups argued that Agriculture Department guidelines allowing more sodium in schoolchildren’s food and reducing whole-grain requirements endangered their health. They also said the Agriculture Department failed to follow required rulemaking procedures.

The final rule differed from the version the Agriculture Department released for public comment, the lawsuit said. The first version would have granted exemptions for some nutrition standards but it would not have eliminated them.

The plaintiffs accused the Agriculture Department of deceit in the rulemaking that they say violated the Administrative Procedures Act.

U.S. District Judge George Hazel agreed with the health advocacy groups that the Agriculture Department abused its discretion.

“Although an agency is certainly permitted to change a rule in response to comments, USDA’s changes are not ‘in character with the original scheme’ of the [rule put out for public comment] because there is a fundamental difference” in the final rule, the judge’s opinion says.

The final rule that eliminated “the Final Sodium Target is not a logical outgrowth” of the interim rule that would only have delayed compliance requirements, the court’s ruling said.

Sodium often is linked to high blood pressure.

The Trump administration changed the rules in response to complaints from the food industry and school nutrition directors. They said it was too difficult to comply with the earlier nutrition standards.

The dispute started in 2012 when the Agriculture Department required schools to switch to grain-rich food options and reduce sodium levels. Former first lady Michelle Obama helped lead the campaign for healthier school meals.

School meal managers opposed the new standards. They said students were discarding more of the food because it didn’t taste good.

One of the industry groups that complained was the School Nutrition Association, which represents cafeteria operators and food suppliers. The trade group also questioned whether school food budgets were adequate to meet the 2012 standards.

The Agriculture Department responded by delaying compliance dates. The agency allowed schools to temporarily serve meals with some refined grains under the revised compliance schedule.

The 2018 rule change would have gutted the Obama administration standards by giving schools broader discretion to choose foods that taste good even if they lack whole grains and contain higher sodium levels.

The federal court’s ruling said the Agriculture Department originally “spoke exclusively in terms of delaying compliance requirements, not abandoning the compliance requirements altogether.”

Healthy School Food Maryland officials said the dangers of obesity and other health problems are a higher priority than responding to industry complaints. 

“The Trump administration’s attempt to gut the whole-grain and sodium standards would have undone years of hard work and advocacy on the part of organizations like ours,” Healthy School Food Maryland officials said in a statement.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest said in a statement, “There is no scientific basis for the Trump administration to reverse the progress schools have been making in reducing sodium and increasing whole grains in school meals.”

Agriculture Department officials have not said whether they would appeal the ruling. The agency oversees school lunch and breakfast programs nationwide.

Although most schools are closed during the coronavirus pandemic, they continue to distribute meals, such as boxed lunches.

They will not need to comply with the food standards required by the court’s ruling until the schools reopen.

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