ATLANTA, GA - Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue summed up one of his most controversial decisions in President Donald Trump’s Cabinet thusly: If he was lobbied to make the decision to delay new nutritional standards for school lunches, it was by students who told him “why they didn’t like their meals anymore.”
With a mix of humor and a reminder of his sharp edge, the former Georgia governor returned to Atlanta on Wednesday to address the School Nutrition Association about his decision to relax requirements spearheaded by the Obama administration.
It’s one of the most contentious moves Perdue has made since Trump tapped him as head of the Agriculture Department, and it provides an early glimpse of how he handles one of the more prominent roles in the president’s administration.
In defending the move to a largely appreciative crowd, Perdue took a few jabs at the media, sprinkled in several jokes and took a fiercely unapologetic tone. It was reminiscent of his two terms as Georgia’s first Republican governor in generations, when he blended joviality with an elbows-out approach.
It’s put him at odds with a range of Obama-era officials, health associations and others who warned it will promote unhealthy eating habits. As Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group put it, “Just because children would rather eat heavily salted, processed foods at school doesn’t mean they should.”
But to Perdue, they were another burdensome and costly regulation from Washington officials who he said were out of touch with local school administrators. Asked Wednesday what the decision says about his leadership style at the department, Perdue was succinct: “I hope it says that we listened.”
The former governor picked a big battle as one of his first: The Obama administration teamed with Congress in 2010 on the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act to implement new nutritional targets for schools. It was a signature achievement of former first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign.
The rules required cafeterias to cut the amount of sodium, refined grains and trans fats in food and beef up offerings of fruits and vegetables. It mandated that cafeterias serve only chocolate milk made from skim milk.
Perdue’s decision, announced in May shortly after his nomination was confirmed by the U.S. Senate, would give schools more time to lower sodium in foods and impose the whole-grain requirements. It also allowed flavored milk with 1 percent fat back into school cafeterias.
He cast it as a way to give administrators more flexibility as he echoed the same familiar debate parents have over meals with finicky children: If kids don’t like the food on the table, they won’t eat it.
“Hungry children cannot learn. I don’t mean to sound so profound for that. That’s simple and basic, and it can get lost in the conversation,” he said. “Food that’s thrown in the trash cannot nourish any child, and frankly that trash can doesn’t need any nourishment.”
He was speaking to a receptive crowd: The School Nutrition Association has long urged the USDA to ease the new nutrition requirements, and in April it dispatched more than 500 members to Capitol Hill to press for a rollback. In 2014, the same group snubbed Michelle Obama’s nutrition adviser, celebrity chef Sam Kass, after he sought to speak to school lunch administrators.
The vast majority of schools - about 97 percent - have already adopted the standards, according to the USDA. But some school administrators also complained about shrinking revenue and more wasted food, and a few opted out of the program - and rejected federal funding - to come up with their own menus.
Many in the audience shared laughs Wednesday as Perdue talked warmly about eating cinnamon rolls as a student in Houston County schools. Lynn Harvey, the organization’s incoming president, was ebullient when asked about the decision.
“School nutrition professionals want more than anything to provide meals that are wholesome, nutritional and appealing to students,” said Harvey, the director of North Carolina’s school nutrition services. “We want our students to be happy and to enjoy the meals.”
Perdue’s decision faces fierce pushback from other corners, including nutrition advocates who said the Obama-era rules helped fight the creeping childhood obesity rate.
The American Heart Association said the delays could lead to higher blood pressure among students and a greater risk of heart disease and strokes. The decision, it added, put “special interests back on the school menu.”
And Margo Wooten, the director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said 90 percent of American kids already eat too much sodium every day.
“Schools have been moving in the right direction,” she said, “so it makes no sense to freeze that progress in its tracks — allowing dangerously high levels of salt in school lunch.”
Pressed on those concerns Wednesday, Perdue said they were overblown. He slammed what he called a “nanny state” approach to nutritional standards, adding that he doubts many mothers would know the sodium content of the dinners they feed their children.
“We’ve imposed on these people who are serving our kids in school rules and regulations that we have no idea what we’re complying with at home,” he said. “We take the kids through the fast-food drive-in and want these school nutrition professionals to be on target as far as all these rules and regulations.”
He added: “When you look at the obesity epidemic that we’ve got out there, that’s not happening at schools. It’s happening at home and on the road to and from school.”
For Perdue, the school lunch feud is one of several high-profile debates he’s played a central role in since joining the Cabinet less than three months ago.
He was widely credited with helping dissuade Trump from pulling out of the North American Free Trade Agreement, telling the president that keeping that campaign promise would disproportionately hurt rural voters who supported him.
He’s also a longtime advocate for expansion of trade with Cuba, and local supporters specifically noted the role he could play in opening agricultural markets in the island nation.
Trump has rolled back part of Barack Obama’s deal with Cuba, imposing tighter restrictions on travel while stopping short of breaking diplomatic relations that were restored in 2015.
Perdue also said he’s felt chafed by “restrictive” regulations set by Congress on how the USDA operates, and that he aims to use the school lunch decision as an example for lawmakers he’s prodding to relax some of those rules.
“I’ll be held accountable for the progress and the product that we deliver,” he said. “And that’s essentially what we’re doing with school nutrition professionals.”