WASHINGTON — The Trump administration moved on Friday to roll back school nutrition standards championed by Michelle Obama, an effort long sought by food manufacturers and some school districts that have chafed at the cost of Mrs. Obama’s prescriptions for fresh fruit and vegetables.
The proposed rule by the Agriculture Department, coming on Mrs. Obama’s birthday, would give schools more flexibility in how much fruit is offered during breakfast and in the types of vegetables offered in meals. It would also broaden what counts as a snack.
The rule was applauded by food companies but condemned by nutritionists who predicted a comeback for starchy foods like potatoes and the return of daily hamburgers.
“Schools and school districts continue to tell us that there is still too much food waste and that more common-sense flexibility is needed to provide students nutritious and appetizing meals,” Sonny Perdue, the agriculture secretary, said in a statement. “We listened and now we’re getting to work.”
The Agriculture Department said the changes reflected requests made over the past two years by those who serve meals to children and teenagers throughout the school year. The department plans to release a regulatory analysis and open the public comment period on Jan. 21.
The proposal is the department’s second attempt to roll back nutrition standards promoted by Mrs. Obama through the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which required schools to serve children fruits and vegetables every day and to offer more whole-grain foods and fat-free or low-fat milk. It also required school meal providers to limit calories and reduce saturated fat, trans fat and sodium.
The department finalized a rule in December 2018 that gave school meal providers permission to serve flavored low-fat milk in the national school lunch program and school breakfast program. That rule stipulated that only half of the weekly grains must be whole grain, and it gave providers more time to reduce sodium in meals.
Friday’s proposal goes further. It allows schools to adjust fruit servings during breakfast, to reduce waste, it said, and to make room for “meats and meat alternates.” Under current regulation, providers must provide one cup of fruit during breakfast for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.
The new rule would also relax current vegetable requirements, which say providers must offer a variety of vegetables, like leafy greens and starchy foods. A department official said the goal was to give more flexibility, not change the amount of vegetables offered.
The proposal would also allow schools to offer lunch entrees for à la carte purchase, in order to reduce waste.
Child nutritionists said the proposed rule could lead to school meal providers turning away from healthy foods, instead of coming up with ways to make the food more appealing. More flexibility on the types of vegetables offered could lead to meals dominated by starchy foods, like potatoes, which are cheaper than green vegetables.
The National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity said allowing lunch entrees for à la carte purchase would create a “giant junk food loophole.” It could also lead to children frequently turning to meals that are meant to be eaten once a week, like hamburgers.
But conservatives applauded.
“The school breakfast and lunch programs have been riddled with waste for a long time, plate waste, being one, and that turns into financial waste,” said Jonathan Butcher, a senior policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
He added that “clearly, no one wants kids to be served unhealthy foods,” but if nutrition requirements lead to children not eating the food offered, the standards are pointless.
The School Nutrition Association, which represents cafeteria workers and the food companies that provide schools with food, applauded the proposal and looked forward to more details. “Updated nutrition standards for school meals have been a tremendous success over all, but a few of the requirements contributed to reduced lunch participation, higher costs and food waste,” Gay Anderson, the president of the association, said in a statement.
This rule is one of two the Agriculture Department plans to propose next week. The other rule would give meal providers more flexibility under the summer meal programs.