Seven Democratic attorneys general are suing the Trump administration to stop the U.S. Department of Agriculture from loosening Obama-era school nutrition regulations. The lawsuit—filed by California, Illinois, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Vermont and the District of Columbia—claims the USDA relaxed sodium and whole-grain requirements without offering the public a chance to comment “and in contravention of nutritional requirements for school meals established by Congress.”
But there’s nothing stopping these states from adopting their own nutritional standards exceeding those the federal government sets. That few do suggests this lawsuit isn’t much more than a political charade.
The federal government began subsidizing school meals in the 1930s. The original goal of the National School Lunch Act of 1946 wasn’t to improve children’s nutrition but to provide a market for the excess production of the U.S. agriculture industry. Agriculture retains an outsize influence on the roughly $19 billion Congress spends every year to provide free or reduced-cost lunch and breakfast to schoolchildren.
In 2016 an attempt to renew the program included grant money “to increase awareness of, and participation in, farm to school programs among agricultural and aquaculture producers or agricultural producer groups, including beginning, veteran, and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.” How this helps improve children’s nutrition is anyone’s guess.
Federal efforts aimed at nutrition are rarely successful, often counterproductive, and sometimes absurd. The four food groups, the food pyramid and the food wheel were all flawed concepts. The Food and Drug Administration has spent time and money regulating products like almond milk because, as its then-administrator said, “an almond doesn’t lactate.”
But state agencies administer the federal nutrition programs by distributing cash subsidies and USDA products to participating school districts. That gives them a degree of influence over what ends up on the plate, which the attorney generals’ lawsuit ignores. There are plenty of things state governments can do on their own to make school lunch and breakfast programs healthier.
A spirit of initiative and experimentation at the state level would allow ideas to compete across the country and the best policies to gain traction. States that succeed in improving youth nutrition can set an example for those that fall behind, while those that struggle can adopt policies that have been tested and proved effective in states with similar populations.
If states don’t agree with the federal government on nutritional standards for school lunch and breakfast programs, they ought to spearhead changes of their own in the direction they’d prefer. Instead, these seven attorneys general have opted for political theater. If they were truly concerned about healthier school lunches, they would urge their colleagues in state government to come up with their own solutions rather than simply blaming the federal government.