A coalition of states and advocacy organizations sued the Trump administration on Wednesday over its rollback of school nutritional standards championed by the former first lady Michelle Obama that required students be served healthier meals.
In lawsuits filed Wednesday, the groups claim that the administration illegally issued rules last year that weakened requirements that school meals contain less salt and more whole grains. The rules were part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, a crucial part of Mrs. Obama’s signature “Let’s Move” campaign.
The suits claim the Agriculture Department violated the Administrative Procedure Act, issuing its rules with little public notice and no reasoned explanation and against overwhelming opposition from the public. The courts have already struck down a series of high-profile rule changes by the administration for the same reason.
The coalition of states, led by New York, filed suit in the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York. Other states that signed on to the suit include California, Illinois, Minnesota, New Mexico, Vermont and the District of Columbia. Additionally, two advocacy organizations, Center for Science in the Public Interest and Healthy School Food Maryland, filed a similar complaint in Federal District Court in Maryland.
The attorney general of New York, Letitia James, announced the lawsuit outside a Brooklyn elementary school, Public School 67, which serves residents of the Ingersoll Houses, a low-income apartment complex run by New York City. Ms. James said 99 percent of those students qualified for free or reduced-price meals before 2017, when the city made school lunches free for all students.
With local officials, parents, a pediatrician and antihunger advocates at her side, Ms. James said the Trump administration, by rolling back nutritional requirements, was “attacking the health and the safety of our children,” particularly the poorest, including the two million across the state who live in poverty.
“For many of our students, the meals they receive at school are the only hot nutritious meals they eat during the day,” she said. “And access to healthy and nutritious food should never be determined by your ZIP code or your socioeconomic status.”
Ms. James said the administration abandoned the Obama-era nutritional standards without doing any scientific research beforehand, and despite the science underlying the requirements for healthier meals, which she said shows that healthier school meals can improve the overall health and school preparedness of students.
The advocacy organizations said the agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue’s mission to “Make school meals great again” has put the health of more than 30 million students at risk.
“This is not just wrong; it’s illegal,” said Anne Harkavy, the executive director of Democracy Forward, which is representing the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Healthy School Food Maryland.
The Agriculture Department did not respond to a request for comment.
The Obama-era rules, completed in 2012, kick-started the administration’s campaign to fight childhood obesity, starting with students’ lunch trays. The rules required schools participating in the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs to reduce the amount of sodium, serve foods rich in whole grains, increase the amount of fruits and vegetables, and limit saturated and trans fats. They also required that flavored milk be fat free.
In May 2017, on his first week on the job, Mr. Perdue announced he would roll back the rules, quipping, “I wouldn’t be as big as I am today without chocolate milk.” Mr. Perdue allowed schools to request an exemption from the whole-grain requirements, delay the sodium mandate and serve 1 percent flavored milk instead of nonfat.
In 2018, the Agriculture Department published a final rule that permanently delayed and eliminated sodium targets and cut in half the amount of whole grains that needed to be served. It also allowed schools to continue to serve low-fat milk, a standard that is not challenged in the lawsuits.
The Agriculture Department argued that the Obama-era rules were burdensome for school districts, and resulted in increased costs and decreased participation in the federal school lunch program.
“If kids aren’t eating the food, and it’s ending up in the trash, they aren’t getting any nutrition,” Mr. Perdue said in announcing the rollbacks.
He also said that he heard from students that food was less tasty. The agency wrote in an interim rule that certain states needed the flexibility to “plan and serve meals that are economically feasible and acceptable to their students and communities,” and “culturally appropriate.” Agriculture Department officials cited requests from states for exemptions to serve tortillas, grits and breakfast biscuits.
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The department maintained that continually granting exemptions was unsustainable. Among those that supported the Trump administration was the School Nutrition Association, which represents school-food professionals, saying that the rules were too stringent.
But the advocacy organizations pointed out that the overwhelming majority of public comments submitted for the 2017 rule supported keeping the original 2012 standards for sodium and whole grains, and that the Agriculture Department’s own data acknowledged that nearly all schools participating in the National School Lunch Program were making progress toward meeting the requirements.
The lawsuits also argue that Congress mandated that science, not taste, guide federal law. For decades, Congress has required that federal nutrition standards align with government-issued dietary guidelines and be rooted in other nutritional research. The suits said the department has ignored that requirement.
Laura MacCleery, the policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a food and health watchdog, said the Trump administration’s effort sought to “torpedo an enormous success story that was really evolving to achieve a significant improvement in school food.”
A food policy adviser for New York City, Anna Bessendorf, said on Wednesday that city school meals already met or exceeded the Obama administration’s 2012 standards and would continue to do so despite the Trump administration’s reversals.
Parents at Wednesday’s announcement who applauded the lawsuit said the daily reality of what the public school cafeterias served to their children was more complicated.
“Most of the time they hit the nail on the head,” said Ayanna Behin, a community education council leader in Brooklyn whose two children, 13 and 10, are in public school.
Nobody on hand said they had seen or heard of evidence of school lunches becoming less healthy since the Trump administration changed course.
Cartons of sweetened milk are still on lunch trays in New York, and Ms. James and Democracy Forward said they might challenge the milk standard in the future.
“The question is, will this give permission to school districts that want to backslide?” said Liz Accles, the executive director of Community Food Advocates, which worked with Ms. James when she served as the city’s public advocate, to push for free lunches citywide.