Trump takes aim at Michelle Obama’s efforts on child nutrition, girls’ education

BY , CP OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR

May 3, 2017 | 1:49 pm

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The Trump administration is looking to whittle away at the legacy of former first lady Michelle Obama, undercutting two key efforts associated with her: child nutrition and girls’ education worldwide.

On Monday, Sonny Perdue, President Trump’s new Agriculture secretary, announced he would loosen restrictions on federally funded school lunch programs — current rules require schools to serve more whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables to millions of children while limiting salt and fat. The push is part of Mrs. Obama’s well-known initiative to help children eat more healthy meals.

Also on Monday, Peace Corps employees said they had been told to stop using the name of Mrs. Obama’s 2-year-old “Let Girls Learn” initiative, CNN reported. Peace Corps workers said they’d been told that as a program unto itself, “Let Girls Learn,” was ending.

Mrs. Obama’s office did not immediately respond to a request for an interview.

In his first major act in Trump’s Cabinet, Perdue, a former Georgia governor, announced the nutrition rollback at an elementary school in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Leesburg, Va. Ahead of the announcement, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) said a new rule would provide “regulatory flexibility.”

The rules set fat, sugar and sodium limits on foods in the lunch line and beyond. Schools have long been required to follow government nutrition rules if they accept federal reimbursements for free and reduced-price meals for low-income students, but the Obama administration’s standards were stricter.

USDA officials said the rules announced Monday were designed to offer schools more flexibility in how they prepare meals, changes long sought by industry leaders and congressional Republicans. In a statement issued afterwards, USDA boasted, “Ag Secretary Perdue Moves to Make School Meals Great Again.”

The change will likely be seen as a rebuke to Mrs. Obama’s championing of tougher nutrition regulations.

The School Nutrition Association (SNA), which represents school nutrition directors and companies that sell food to schools, has long said many of the Obama administration standards are unworkable and overly prescriptive, resulting in higher costs and fewer students participating in lunch programs.

The association often clashed with Obama policies, which phased in the healthier school meal rules starting in 2012. Mrs. Obama pushed the changes as part of her “Let’s Move” campaign to combat childhood obesity.

SNA lobbied to roll back the rules and has argued for changes to whole grain and sodium requirements in particular, saying it’s hard to make foods that kids will eat that are high enough in whole grains and low enough in sodium. They also lobbied for more flexibility in rules that require kids to eat fruits and vegetables, saying children often throw these away uneaten.

“If kids aren’t eating the food, and it’s ending up in the trash, they aren’t getting any nutrition,” Perdue said Monday, “thus undermining the intent of the program.”

The new rules would also give schools greater leeway to serve 1% flavored milk, for which the dairy industry has lobbied. In a proclamation issued Monday, Perdue said he’d direct USDA to begin the regulatory process “to provide that discretion to schools.”

The Leesburg event took place in the school district of SNA President Becky Domokos-Bays. In a statement, SNA said that while it supports “robust federal rules” for nutrition, it also advocates for “practical flexibility” to help schools plan menus.

SNA CEO Patricia Montague said Perdue’s move would give schools more flexibility “to prepare and serve healthy meals that are appealing to students.”

Critics swiftly responded to the change. Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, a D.C.-based advocacy group, said in a statement: “Just because children would rather eat heavily salted, processed foods at school doesn’t mean they should. The president’s fondness for Big Macs and KFC is well known, but we shouldn’t let Colonel Sanders and McDonald’s run the school cafeteria.”

Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association, said improving children’s health should be a top priority for the USDA. Serving more nutritious foods in schools, she said, “is a clear-cut way to accomplish this goal.”

In a blog posting, New York University nutrition professor and author Marion Nestle noted that the school lunch changes are part of larger rollbacks in standards. “It’s pretty depressing to watch what’s happening to the gains in food and nutrition policy so hard won in the last few years,” she wrote. “Nothing but bad news.”

USDA says its latest statistics show that more than 31.6 million children get lunch each day through the National School Lunch Program. Since the modern program began in 1946, more than 224 billion lunches have been served.

Mrs. Obama’s girls’ education program, which pushes for greater access to schooling for adolescent girls in developing countries, will cease being a “stand-alone program,” Peace Corps acting director Sheila Crowley told employees, according to CNN.

“‘Let Girls Learn’ provided a platform to showcase Peace Corps’ strength in community development, shining a bright light on the work of our Volunteers all over the world,” Crowley wrote in an email obtained by CNN. “We are so proud of what ‘Let Girls Learn’ accomplished and we have all of you to thank for this success.”

USA TODAY could not verify the email and Peace Corps did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Asked to confirm the CNN report, Stephanie Grisham, communications director for first lady Melania Trump, told the Los Angeles Times that Mrs. Trump “looks forward to outlining her agenda in the near future.”

The Obamas started “Let Girls Learn” in March 2015, saying at the time that 62 million girls worldwide are not in school who should be. President Obama noted, “That’s not by accident. It’s the direct result of barriers, large and small, that stand in the way of girls who want to learn.”

Appearing at an international education conference in Qatar in November 2015, the former first lady said that while every developed region has achieved or is close to achieving gender parity in primary education, girls still lag far behind in secondary education.

“If we truly want to get girls into our classrooms, then we need to have an honest conversation about how we view and treat women in our societies,” she said at the time. “And this conversation needs to happen in every country on this planet, including my own.”

In response to reports of the program’s demise on Monday, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said she would introduce new legislation “to sustain focus on the unique barriers that adolescent girls around the world face in accessing a quality, equitable education.” She said the legislation would ensure that the USA “remains committed to adolescent girls as a critical demographic in the growth of every nation, with a specific focus on developing nations.”

Shaheen said she was “extremely disappointed” in the administration’s move.

“Far too often, adolescent girls are kept from school because of societal norms and family obligations. Parents who can only afford to send one child to school send their sons, girls are married off at an extremely young age and expected to stay home to do menial tasks, and girls who do attend school often face violence and threats along the way.”

Contributing: AP; Follow Greg Toppo on Twitter: @gtoppo