Food & DrinkThe Locavore

Agriculture Secretary Nominee Sonny Perdue Will Influence What Kids Eat

On Feb. 15, The Locavore explored some of the ways President Trump’s choice for secretary of agriculture, Sonny Perdue, could affect farming policies that affect local Athens farms. But as head of the USDA, Perdue will take on more than just farming policy.

The USDA also oversees a wide range of food and nutrition policies, including the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and the National School Lunch Program. Any major changes to these programs will directly affect Athens families, especially the nearly 40 percent who live below the poverty line.

Though most of us have never read it, the DGA is the policy behind our ideas about nutrition. The food pyramid, nutrition labels, servings per day recommendations—they all stem from the dietary guidelines. And any food program that receives funding from the federal government must follow the nutrition standards in document.

So, what does this have to do with Perdue?

The USDA and Department of Health and Human Services appoint a Dietary Guideline Advisory Committee of food and nutrition researchers who review and submit feedback on current guidelines. These agencies then update federal nutrition policy based on the committee’s recommendations.

The federal dietary guidelines get an update every five years, and they change very slowly. So, Perdue’s personal views aren’t likely to show up in the dietary guidelines, but his appointments to the advisory committee could reflect the agenda of the Trump Administration at large.

The makeup of school lunches might see a more immediate policy change. School nutrition standards were overhauled in 2010 with the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

“Schools are required to serve lunches that meet federal meal pattern requirements,” says Tracey Brigman, a dietitian and nutrition professor at UGA. “These requirements align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”

Now schools are required to prepare meals that include one serving each of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, while limiting sodium and saturated fats. On top of that, the Smart Snacks program prevents schools from selling junk food and sugary drinks on campus.

Brigman points out that, although some Republican members of the House have called the requirements burdensome, the latest research suggests that the program works. Kids are choosing more nutritious foods than they were before the changes.

Manny Stone is the culinary arts director for Clarke County schools, and he’s seen the positive impact of providing healthy meals to students. “The evidence indicates clearly that kids who eat diets that are truly nourishing perform better in school,” he says.

Stone would be disappointed if junk foods found their way back into area schools. “I find the idea of selling, or providing, junk food or nutritionally empty snacks… to be antithetical to our mission for our students,” he says.

Though neither Congress nor Trump has made any statements about school lunch standards, Stone is watchful. “We have all likely heard of President Trump’s professed love of fast food. Hopefully he keeps that out of our schools.”
The future of SNAP is also unclear. Professor Grace Bagwell Adams studies how health policies impact vulnerable people—children, the elderly, the poor—at UGA’s College of Public Health. She says restricting benefit programs like SNAP disproportionately hurts these groups.

“Just because the government overnight decides to dismantle a program, that doesn’t mean the need for that program has gone anywhere,” she says.

Again, Trump and Congress haven’t said much about food assistance, but Adams is concerned that if they approach SNAP funding like they’ve taken on health insurance reform, “that does not trend toward investment in policies that are designed to reduce poverty.”

In fact, says Adams, Perdue could have his hands full with a new wave of SNAP applications if people lose other benefits like Medicaid or welfare. “When you cut from one program, it often has implications and spillover effects for another program,” she says.

So, how will our former governor do? We’ll have to wait and see.