Court Says Sec. Perdue “Gave No Indication” USDA Would Buck Science-Based Nutrition Standards, Vacates Trump’s Rollback

Administration’s Illegal Actions Threatened Health of 30 Million Children Nationwide in Self-Proclaimed Effort to “Make School Meals Great Again”

Washington, D.C. — Yesterday, a federal court vacated the Trump administration’s 2018 rollback of nutrition standards for the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs — a rollback that threatened the health of 30 million children nationwide. On behalf of the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Healthy School Food Maryland, Democracy Forward filed suit to halt the weakening of the school meal nutrition rules, which halved whole-grain requirements and increased permissible sodium levels for meals served to children. The Court agreed with the plaintiffs that the administration violated the Administrative Procedure Act. Now that the unlawful rule has been struck down, if the Trump administration seeks to again weaken school nutrition standards, they will have to start over and engage more transparently with the public.

“This decision is a victory for children and families, for policymaking based on sound science, and for the rule of law. The Trump administration’s unlawful rollback of important school meal nutrition standards jeopardized children’s access to the nutritious foods they need to stay healthy,” said Democracy Forward Executive Director Anne Harkavy. “This victory shows, once again, that the Trump administration’s pattern of unlawfully shutting the public out of policy changes that impact their health can’t — and won’t — stand.”

“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,” said Fania Yangarber, Executive Director of Healthy School Food Maryland. “Now, more than ever, our kids deserve high nutrition standards in their school meals. In the midst of a pandemic and economic crisis, this is a win for children and families across America — particularly those that rely on free and reduced-cost meals.”

In April 2019, CSPI and Healthy School Food Maryland sued the USDA for issuing a final rule that substantially weakened school meal nutrition standards by slashing the required amount of whole grains and increasing the sodium levels permitted in school-provided meals. Among other things, the suit charged that the USDA violated the APA by eliminating sodium and whole-grain targets without seeking feedback from the public.

The Court agreed that the Trump administration’s final rule is “not a logical outgrowth” of the proposals on which USDA sought public comment. USDA eliminated the final of three sodium reduction targets without letting the public know. Finding this action unlawful, the Court stated that: “There is a fundamental difference between delaying compliance standards — which indicates that school meals will still eventually meet those standards — and eliminating those standards altogether.”

The Court further found the agency illegally eliminated the requirement that at least fifty percent of grains served in school meals be whole grains and the corresponding product-waiver program. As the Court noted, USDA took “what was a limited, case-by-case exemption” and turned it into “the new rule across the board.

In his first week in office, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue signed a proclamation to “make school meals great again.” The Trump administration’s efforts to gut the school meal nutrition standards, however, threatened to harm children nationwide. Students who cannot access nutritious meals are at greater risk of developing a variety of health issues, including heart disease, hypertension, heart failure, kidney disease, and stroke. The administration’s attempt to lower nutrition standards for school meals put approximately 30 million children, including approximately 22 million low-income children, at greater risk of health issues associated with diets high in sodium and low in whole grains.

In September 2019, amici briefs were filed in support of the suit by the American Heart Association, MomsRising, American Public Health Association, FoodCorps, the National Education Association, and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. A coalition of states, led by New York, also challenged the same rule in the Southern District of New York.

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Democracy Forward is a nonprofit legal organization that scrutinizes Executive Branch activity across policy areas, represents clients in litigation to challenge unlawful actions, and educates the public when the White House or federal agencies break the law.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest is America’s food and health watchdog.

Healthy School Food Maryland is a coalition of over 5,600 members across the state of Maryland, including parents taking a leadership role at their children’s school, promoting delicious, fresh, whole, and nutrient-rich foods in schools.

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