“THIS ISN’T like putting a man on the moon or inventing the internet,” said Michelle Obama in 2010 as she launched Let’s Move!, a campaign to fight childhood obesity that became her signature cause as First Lady. “It doesn’t take a stroke of genius or a feat of technology.”
Reducing America’s childhood obesity rates, which have tripled since the 1970s, does require government action, though. Because many children, especially from poor families, consume a large percentage of their daily calories at school, a big part of Mrs Obama’s effort focused on improving the quality of school lunches. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed in 2010 required school cafeterias to serve more fruit, vegetables, wholegrains and less salt. On December 12th the Trump administration published a rule rolling back some of those reforms.
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Under the Obama reform, schools were only allowed to serve wholegrain-rich products (that is, those containing at least 50% whole grain). The changes announced by Sonny Perdue, the agriculture secretary, which will come into effect next year, will require them to offer half as many. This will allow schools to serve children more refined (white) grain products. They will also be allowed to offer low-fat milk and flavoured milk rather than non-fat versions.
More drastically, the changes relax the rules on salt in school meals. American children consume an average of 3,387 mg of sodium a day, about the same as adults. Federal dietary guidelines suggest a daily limit of 2,300 mg. The Obama-era reforms therefore sought to gradually reduce the amount of salt served at school by introducing three time-staggered reduction targets. But the new rules ease up on those, delaying two of the targets and eliminating the third altogether. As a result, schools need never meet the federal dietary guidelines.
Of all the Trump administration’s many regulatory cuts, the unrolling of these modest improvements to school food (which is still pretty dire) is among the hardest to fathom. Nearly one in three American children is overweight or obese (measured as a body mass index of 30 or more). And many of those who are not soon will be. Overweight children tend to get fatter as they age; 40% of American adults are obese. A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine predicted that by the time they are in their mid-thirties, 57% of children today will be obese.
Obesity does not just hurt those who carry the extra pounds. Because overweight people are at greater risk of heart attacks, diabetes, strokes and numerous other illnesses it also burdens America’s over-stretched health-care system. Excess use of salt does terrible damage too. More than one in seven Americans teenagers has hypertension or high blood pressure. Unsurprisingly, the American Heart Association and other health organisations have urged schools to ignore the rollbacks and stick with the Obama-era reforms.
Why, beyond a desire to deregulate and to repudiate the Obamas’ legacy, were the changes made? Mr Perdue suggested the chief reason was that children did not much like the food the new regulations had produced. The School Nutrition Association, which represents school meal administrators, agreed with that. The Obama-era changes had been “more than some children would accept”, it said.
That is probably correct. Nutritionists say that changing children’s eating habits can take a long time. But they also say that the best way to get children used to new foods is to go on offering them. Letting schoolchildren dictate how much salt and white bread they eat is unlikely to make them healthier.
Mr Perdue has also said the Obama-era reforms were too burdensome for schools to manage. Yet in 2016 the agriculture department said most schools were meeting the standards.
Even the reduced salt requirement, which can be finickity to implement, has largely been met. The Centre for Science in the Public Interest, a health advocacy group, says that “virtually all” school districts had met the first set of targets. “Instead of building on that progress, the administration has chosen to jeopardise children’s health in the name of deregulation”, it said in a statement.
It has not been lost on healthy food campaigners that the head of the administration, President Donald Trump, is an overweight man who does not exercise and eats a lot of fast food. Mr Perdue has joshed about his own girth as a means to justify his department’s campaign to make America’s children eat more unhealthy food. “I wouldn’t be as big as I am today without chocolate milk,” he said last year. Actually, the gratuitous damage he has just done is no joke.
This content was originally published here.