Weekly Columns

I spend a great deal of my time on the road when I’m home in Arkansas. As a firm believer that the best ideas come from the ground up, I make it a priority to stay in constant contact with community leaders across our state. These visits provide me with plenty of ideas and perspective to bring back to Washington to help us grow, keep our families safer and healthier, and address some of the biggest issues we face.

While I enjoy each unique visit, sharing lunch with kids in their school’s cafeteria is high up on the list of favorites. Maybe because it takes me back to my school board roots or it might be the nostalgic feeling of a school cafeteria, but sitting down with Arkansas’s future and hearing their hopes and dreams always brings a smile to my face.

School lunches are essential building blocks for achieving the goals our students are pursuing. Volumes of research show a direct correlation between healthy meals and academic performance. 

Arkansas’s school nutrition professionals work hard each school day to feed kids healthy, nutritious meals. Their dedication allows many struggling parents in our state to feel confident their children will at least be able to eat well during the school day.    

Officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are eyeing changes that will make school nutrition professionals’ jobs more difficult starting in the 2024-25 school year. The department has proposed stricter nutritional standards for school breakfast and lunch programs—an added sugars limit, incremental sodium reductions, restrictions to the type of milk which may be offered and a whole grain-rich requirement. 

It may seem well-meaning, but the changes pose significant challenges for school staff working to feed students, who will likely also end up suffering as a result.

This is a perfect example of an idea that looks good on paper but is unworkable when put into practice. 

Many students will not consume meals offered under these revised standards. The Institute of Medicine report, on which previous iterations were based, noted that if children did not change the foods they consume at home, they are unlikely to adapt to food with significantly restricted sodium at school. 

Is it rational to expect to change a child’s eating habit over a 20-minute lunch period, when foods outside of school do not meet the same requirements?  

Not only will these regulations likely lead to an increase in food waste, but they will also drive up the costs for schools and families. Food inflation remains at its highest rate in four decades and schools routinely struggle to procure foods that meet these proposed benchmarks. 

Evidence suggests that a dramatic change of this nature is simply unnecessary. Parents, nutritionists and policymakers on both sides of the aisle all agree school meals have become more nutritious in recent years. Sometimes we forget how far school meals have come––more fruits and vegetables are being served, along with more whole grains, and there have already been drastic reductions in sodium. 

Our school nutrition professionals care deeply about the children they serve. I trust them to know their students and what will work in their schools to ensure the food they’re serving will be eaten, not thrown away.

When they tell me these standards are a problem, I listen. The Biden administration and the president’s appointees at USDA should as well.