Attorney General James And Multistate Coalition Sue Trump Administration For Gutting Key Nutritional Standards For School Meals  

Coalition Challenging “Illegal” Revisions to Nutritional Requirements for School Breakfasts and Lunches 

Weakened Standards Impact Over 1.6 Million New York Schoolchildren 

NEW YORK – Attorney General Letitia James, leading a multistate coalition, today announced a lawsuit against the Trump Administration for illegally weakening key federal nutritional standards for breakfasts and lunches served to nearly 30 million  schoolchildren in the United States. The coalition contends that the Trump Administration’s Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) rollback of sodium limits and whole grain requirements for school meals lacks legally-mandated scientific basis, and, in further violation of law, was adopted without public notice and opportunity to comment.  

“Over a million children in New York – especially those in low-income communities and communities of color – depend on the meals served daily by their schools to be healthy, nutritious, and prepare them for learning,” said Attorney General Letitia James. “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. My office will use every tool at our disposal to fight back against these shameful rollbacks and ensure our children are protected.” 

Established in 1946, the National School Lunch Program is a federally subsidized program that provides students with healthy, balanced meals in schools at low- or no-cost. Since that time, Congress has taken action to ensure that program’s nutritional guidelines keep current with the best scientific evidence with the most recent modernization occurring in 2010 with the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. 

In 2018, nearly 30 million children consumed nearly five billion school lunches, and more than 14 million children ate school breakfasts under the national school lunch and breakfast programs with over 1.6 million children participating in New York alone. School meal programs are especially important for children in low-income families; in 2018, more than 74 percent of school lunches and 85 percent of school breakfasts provided to schoolchildren in the United States were offered free or at a reduced price. Further, according to USDA’s own figures, a disproportionately high share of students participating in the national school lunch and breakfast programs are black or Hispanic. 

In 1994, Congress acted to require school meals to be consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (Dietary Guidelines), nutritional and dietary information, and guidelines for the general public that are jointly issued by USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services. In 2010, Congress directed USDA to update the nutritional requirements based on a 2009 study by the Food and Nutrition Board, which is part of the National Academy of Sciences.  

The Food and Nutrition Board study found that the daily sodium intake for schoolchildren “clearly was excessive,” and at levels significantly above the Dietary Guidelines. The study cited scientific evidence showing a relationship between sodium intake and blood pressure in children as well, and that “high blood pressure responds to a reduction in salt intake in children as in adults.” Consequently, the Food and Nutrition Board Study recommended sodium limits for school meals based on the Dietary Guidelines.    

The study also found “extremely low” consumption of whole grains by schoolchildren. USDA has recognized that whole grains are an important source of iron, magnesium, selenium, B vitamins, and dietary fiber, and that eating whole grains in nutrient dense forms may lower body weight and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. The study recommended that grain products served in schools be “whole grain-rich”—i.e., contain at least 51% whole grains—as recommended by the Dietary Guidelines. 

In 2010, Congress enacted the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which directed USDA to issue revised nutritional standards for school lunches and breakfasts. After public notice and extensive comment on the proposed rule – over 133,000 public comments were considered – USDA in 2012 issued new, updated nutritional standards for school meals. These updates included, for the first time, interim and final limits for sodium, as well as a requirement increasing the whole grains in school meals. In accordance with federal law, the standards set for sodium and whole grain were consistent with the Dietary Guidelines and the recommendations of the Food and Nutrition Board study.  

Most schools across the nation have now met the first sodium reduction target of the 2012 regulation. Further, the majority of schools are now meeting the regulation’s standard by serving bread, pancakes, pasta, and other foods to students that are entirely whole-grain rich. 

Despite this substantial progress, in 2018, the Trump Administration’s USDA issued a rule that dismantled key nutrition standards set by the 2012 Rule, eliminating the final maximum sodium target, delaying by five years the second intermediate maximum sodium target that had been set for the 2019-2020 school year, and cutting in half the whole grains requirement. In issuing the rule, the Trump USDA failed to explain how the changes to the sodium and whole grain nutrition standards for school meals were, as required by law, “consistent with the goals of the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans” and “based on” the Food and Nutrition Board study’s recommendations. Further, the 2018 rule was neither issued as a proposed rule nor was the public provided an opportunity to comment on it.   

Joining Attorney General James in today’s lawsuit, are the Attorneys General of California, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Vermont. 

The lawsuit was filed in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York. 

“Our country is feeding the health care crisis facing millions of Americans every single day,” said Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. “The National School Lunch Program establishes a minimum standard of nutrition requirements that, in fact, fall significantly short of what our young people need to avoid the pipeline to chronic disease that awaits so many, particularly if they live in food deserts. It is unconscionable that we have to fight to hold that standard, but it is with great gratitude that I thank Attorney General James for standing on this legal battlefield alongside our children and families. From Brooklyn to Bakersfield, we are nourishing the start of a nationwide movement to ensure every student has access to truly healthy school meals.”

“I want to applaud the Attorney General for having this press conference and understanding the importance of not just viewing the individual as a student but taking a holistic look at each individual student," said Assemblymember Walter Mosley. "It is a crucial component of education to look at the student as a whole person understanding that while it is important that we feed children’s mind it is equally important to consider how we feed them. Proper nutrition is the fuel that drives us all but it is particularly important for young students. We must ensure that the nutrition each child receives during the school day is not just adequate but puts each child in a position where they can flourish in an effort to grow the entire person, mind and body. We must maintain and improve the quality standards for nutrition in each and every school so that all students may be able to remain alert and ready to soak up the education our hard-working teachers are providing. It is undeniable, a properly nourished student and a better student. Thank you again to our Attorney General and I look forward to doing all I can to help this initiative that is near and dear to my heart.”

"Our kids can't learn when they're hungry, and in order to learn best, they need nutritious food. By weakening federal nutrition standards for school breakfast and lunch, the Trump Administration is hurting our students and that is simply unacceptable," said Council Member Mark Treyger, Chairman of the Education Committee. "All kids deserve healthy, equitable, sustainable, and culturally responsive food access, and I'm proud to join Attorney General Letitia James to make sure our kids are protected." 

“Every day in New York City, we serve 900,000 meals in public schools to give our students the best possible chance at a healthy life and a bright future,” said New York City Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Dr. Herminia Palacio. “Weakening the federal nutrition standards is a baseless and irresponsible move, and a disservice to our children. We applaud the Attorney General’s efforts to stop this ill-conceived policy and protect our children’s health.” 

“As a former USDA official, I can attest to that fact that, over the previous three decades, the department has advanced a bi-partisan consensus that school meals should both fight child hunger and boost child nutrition,” said Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America. “The Trump Administration is breaking that consensus by going around Congress and violating federal law in order to make school meals less healthy. We are grateful that Attorney General James is taking legal action to stop these efforts to harm the health of our children.” 

“The national school lunch and breakfast programs serve more than 30 million kids,” said Peter Lehner, Managing Attorney, Earthjustice, Sustainable Food and Farming Program. “And many of those children rely on school food throughout their K-12 education. That’s over 7 billion opportunities every year to improve our kids’ health.  It’s simple math: no other program has so much power to instill good eating habits and prevent chronic disease. This same math is why food manufacturers will continue to develop meals that meet the dietary guideline nutrition goals and are appetizing to schoolchildren. Attorney General James and the other state Attorneys General are correct to challenge this unnecessary and illegal rollback of standards critical to the health of our children.” 

“The law requires USDA to make sure school kids are served healthy meals by basing nutrition standards on science, so ignoring science and putting kids’ health at risk like this is not just wrong, it’s illegal,” said Anne Harkavy, Executive Director, Democracy Forward .. "We are proud to stand alongside Attorney General James and this coalition of states in protecting children's health and upholding the rule of law." 

“There are 30 million students relying on the National School Lunch Program. each and every school day,” said Liz Accles, Executive Director, Community Food Advocates. “Rather than building on the recent  gains in school meals program, the Trump administration took a leap backward by eroding firmly established health-based nutritional standards. We are very supportive of  New York State Attorney General Letitia James’ and  the multi- state coalition’s challenge of  this unconscionable USDA action.”  

"As a chef and food policy leader I am disgusted by recent attempts by our Federal Administration to roll back school food standards that our nation worked so hard to strengthen,” said Chef Greg Silverman, MSc, Executive Director, West Side Campaign Against Hunger. “At the West Side Campaign Against Hunger we know very well that  many of our community of 22,000 food insecure New Yorkers depend on healthy, nutritious, flavorful school meals to help their children learn and thrive. Rolling back nutritional standards is an ultra processed recipe for decreasing educational outcomes, increasing food insecurity and elevating obesity levels for the next generation and its simply unacceptable. We thank Attorney General James for her leadership to protect our children.” 

“Our organization has seen that working alongside school and district leaders to meet and exceed school meal expectations, rather than weakening standards, leads to better outcomes for our kids. This should not be a time to play political football with the school nutrition program, as the USDA rollbacks are attempting to do,” said Cecily Upton, Co-Founder and Chief Strategist, FoodCorps. “We support and celebrate the school nutrition leaders across the country who have committed to maintaining the original, dietary guidelines aligned nutrition standards and thank Attorney General James for her leadership on this critical issue. Our team at FoodCorps works with school nutrition professionals to ensure students are excited to eat healthy food in cafeterias across the country, but there is more work to do. Our children are worth it.” 

This matter is being handled by the Environmental Protection Bureau of the New York Attorney General’s Office and is led by Deputy Bureau Chief Monica Wagner, Assistant Attorneys General Samantha Liskow and Max Shterngel, and Chief Scientist Jodi Feld, in consultation with Environmental Protection Bureau Chief Lemuel Srolovic and Acting Civil Rights Bureau Chief Elena Goldstein, and under the Supervision of Chief Counsel for Federal Initiatives Matthew Colangelo.