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States sue Trump administration over changes to Michelle Obama's school lunch standards

'Common-sense flexibilities'

Edwin Remsburg/VW Pics via Getty Images

A group of states has filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration over its rollback of some nutritional standards for school lunches championed by former first lady Michelle Obama.

The lawsuit, filed in New York federal court on Wednesday, is a response to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2018 rule that relaxed some of the guidelines surrounding its federally subsidized meal programs, ABC News reported. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's new rules allow local schools more freedom to create meals that meet their communities' needs.

The complaint filed by New York, California, Illinois, Minnesota, New Mexico, Vermont, and the District of Columbia says USDA Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue violated federal law by not allowing a public comment period before the rollback. It also argued that the guidelines contradict the nutritional requirements set by Congress.

Nearly 5 billion school lunches were served to nearly 30 million children last year, according to the lawsuit. And more than 14 million children received breakfast through federal meal programs.

What are the details?

In 2012, changes to the federal lunch program led by Michelle Obama called for limits on sodium, no flavored milk, mandatory use of whole grains, and a calorie cap on lunches. Perdue initially announced plans to relax the guidelines in 2017, which took effect in December 2018.

The recent changes give schools the option to offer 1 percent milk in flavors such as chocolate and strawberry, eased sodium reduction targets, and only half of the grains in an item must be whole grain.

The lawsuit has called on the court to reverse guidelines made in 2018 and allow for public comment before dietary changes are made to school meals.

"Plaintiff States bring this case to protect the health of the school children in their States by ensuring that nutritional standards for school meals are not changed without an opportunity to comment on the changes and that, as required by Congress, the standards are based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences, and scientific research regarding children's nutrition," the complaint reads.

Why were the changes made in 2018?

The USDA made the changes as a way give local schools more freedom to make decisions that work for their communities.

"USDA is committed to serving meals to kids that are both nutritious and satisfying," Perdue said in a statement in December. "These common-sense flexibilities provide excellent customer service to our local school nutrition professionals, while giving children the world-class food service they deserve."

The move wasn't meant to diminish nutritional standards but rather to provide greater flexibility for meal preferences on a local level, according to the USDA.

"If kids are not eating what is being served, they are not benefiting, and food is being wasted," Perdue said. "We all have the same goals in mind — the health and development of our young people. USDA trusts our local operators to serve healthy meals that meet local preferences and build bright futures with good nutrition."

"We will continue to listen to schools, and make common-sense changes as needed, to ensure they can meet the needs of their students based on their real-world experience in local communities," he said.

What did the states' attorney say?

New York Attorney General Letitia James, who is leading the lawsuit, told The Hill that school meals should be healthy and that the rollbacks are shameful.

"Over a million children in New York — especially those in low-income communities and communities of color — depend on the meals served daily by their schools to be healthy, nutritious, and prepare them for learning," James told The Hill in a statement. "The Trump Administration has undermined key health benefits for our children — standards for salt and whole grains in school meals — with deliberate disregard for science, expert opinion, and the law. My office will use every tool at our disposal to fight back against these shameful rollbacks and ensure our children our protected."

What else?

A USDA spokesperson declined The Hill's request for comment, citing its policy to not speak about ongoing litigation.

Also on Wednesday, the group Democracy Forward filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Healthy School Food Maryland.

"American children are fed too much sodium — raising their risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke," CSPI Vice President for Nutrition Margo Wootan said in a statement.

"Kids are also getting too much white refined flour and not enough whole grains," Wootan said. "After working for over a decade to improve school nutrition and seeing the tremendous progress that schools are making, it's heartbreaking to see the Trump administration reverse course. The Trump rollbacks are recklessly putting kids' health in jeopardy."

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