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USDA sued for weakening school sodium, whole grain requirements

Two lawsuits have been filed in federal court challenging the U.S. Department of Agriculture's rollback of sodium and whole-grain requirements in public school meals.

Six states and Washington, D.C., sued in New York, while the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Healthy School Food Maryland sued in Maryland. Both complaints allege USDA did not provide legally defensible reasons for why it decided to weaken sodium standards and cut in half the amount of whole grains that need to be present in grain-based foods.

When the department issued its rule in December, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said USDA was providing school districts with flexibility as they implement the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The districts largely supported the changes, saying they were having difficulty meeting the sodium and whole-grain requirements, in part because of cultural differences.

"A majority of school meal programs struggle with students' regional and cultural preferences for specific refined grains such as white rice, pasta, grits or tortillas," the School Nutrition Association said in comments to USDA in January 2018.

"If kids are not eating what is being served, they are not benefiting, and food is being wasted," Perdue said.

In a 2012 rule, USDA required schools to reduce sodium in breakfasts and lunches starting in the 2014-15 school year, and scheduled two more reduction targets to be met in 2017 and 2022. In late 2017, USDA issued an interim final rule that retained the initial sodium target for the 2018-19 school year, delaying implementation of the second reduction target until 2019-20.

But the December 2018 rule delayed implementation of the second target until the 2024-2025 school year and eliminated the third target.

The final sodium target "would have reduced sodium in elementary school lunches by approximately 54 percent and in elementary school breakfasts by approximately 25 percent from the pre-2012 rule baseline," the New York lawsuit says.

"American children are fed too much sodium — raising their risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke," said Margo Wootan, the Center for Science in the Public Interest's vice president for nutrition. "Kids are also getting too much white refined flour and not enough whole grains. 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."

New York Attorney General Letitia James said 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."

Both complaints say USDA did not give the public adequate notice of the changes it was contemplating, when it issued the interim final rule in 2017. Both also alleged that USDA violated a congressional mandate that school nutrition standards be consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

New York was joined in its complaint by California, Illinois, Minnesota, New Mexico, Vermont, and Washington, D.C., which collectively represent about 18 percent of the U.S. population.