Exactly one week after Sonny Perdue was sworn in as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, he pulled up a seat at a school cafeteria table in Leesburg to enjoy a chicken-nugget lunch with students.
His stop at Catoctin Elementary School today was his first public visit in his new role and it was about more than chicken nuggets. After he chatted with students, he stepped in front of a podium and a dozen cameras to announce a plan to relax some of the federal guidelines that regulate school meals.
He signed a proclamation that will delay the more stringent rules for wholegrain and sodium levels that were set to go into effect next school year. The regulations are the “second tier” of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act championed by Michelle Obama and signed into law in 2010 by President Barack Obama.
The proclamation signed by Perdue also allows public schools to serve 1 percent chocolate and strawberry milk, instead of the current rule that allows only non-fat flavored milks to be served. “I wouldn’t be as big as I am today without chocolate milk,” said Perdue, who served as governor of Georgia from 2003 to 2011. “And the kids told me that the flavored milk limited to non-fat was not as tasty as they would like, so we’re allowing 1 percent flavored milk.”
Perdue said his office wants to have time to study the impacts of the stricter guidelines and make a decision on whether to move forward with them or, more likely, reverse them. He noted that schools nationwide are reporting that more food is ending up in the trash and the number of students participating in school breakfast and lunch programs has declined.
“We all know that meals can’t be nutritious if they’re not consumed—if they’re in the trash,” Perdue said. “We have to balance the sodium content, the wholegrain content with the palpability.”
Speaking to members of the press, alongside Senate agriculture committee chairman U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS), Perdue asked if they could imagine a 100 percent wholegrain biscuit or a wholegrain grits. “It just doesn’t work,” he added.
[Watch the full press conference on Loudoun Now’s Facebook page.]
Loudoun County has actually bucked the national trend and seen an increase in students eating school breakfast and lunch in recent years. Director of Nutrition Services Becky Domokos-Bays has hosted taste tests and surveyed students to gather feedback on menu items. She’s partnered with Loudoun County farmers to bring more local produce into the school cafeterias, and last year she launched a grab-and-go breakfast program that helped boost breakfast participation by 28 percent districtwide.
But Domokos-Bays told Loudoun Now after the press conference that the stricter regulations that were set to begin this fall would make it more difficult to bring kids to the cafeteria table. Already her team has tested out lower-sodium soups and many kids won’t touch it. The school system got a waiver this year from the federal requirement to serve wholegrain pastas because it would fall apart before it even made it on to kids’ trays.
“It’s difficult,” she said. An 8-ounce carton of milk already counts toward 10 percent of the amount of sodium allowed under federal rules, she added. “If you do the math, you get to the limit very quickly.”
Perdue’s visit, particularly his announcement to roll back school meal standards, was met with criticism from a crowd of protesters outside the school. About two dozen people gathered with signs and asked passersby to “honk in support of the kids.”
Leesburg resident Deanna Lavanty kept her two sons, one in second grade and one in fourth grade at Catoctin, out of school today and instead joined the protest. They snacked on apples and read a book while they waited for Perdue to arrive.
“We are not happy with the politicizing of the event,” Lavanty said. She added that she wouldn’t have protested if Perdue’s visit was about providing students with a lesson in how the USDA works, or some other educational message. “But to sign something like this at a school when it’s actually going to hurt kids—it just doesn’t add up. To me it’s deceptive.”
Michael Martin, director of Elementary Education in Loudoun, said the secretary’s stop in Leesburg was apolitical. His chance to visit with students over lunch was kept separate from the signing ceremony and press conference. Perdue also stopped by C.S. Monroe Technology Center to talk with students studying agriculture.
Because of Loudoun’s proximity to the nation’s capitol, the school system has hosted federal leaders before. Its nutrition program was in the spotlight again a year ago when USDA’s Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services’ Deputy Undersecretary Katie Wilson visited Frederick Douglass Elementary, also in Leesburg, to applaud its efforts to bring more students in for breakfast.
“We really see these visits as an opportunity to recognize what Dr. Bays has done. She makes sure the food is healthy and nutritious—and that it tastes good,” Martin said. “[Perdue’s] coming to visit a school where the nutrition program is one of the best in the country.”