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Calorie Counts Face an Uncertain Future Under Trump

This week, we saw major blows to nutrition advancements made during the Obama-era. Are we entering a Dark Age for food policy in America?

Alex Swerdloff

Photo via Flickr user USDAgov

The food industry—comprising the leading agrochemical giants, Big Food corporations, and food retailers—has spent much of the first hundred days of the Trump presidency trying to capitalize on the president's wide-spanning anti-regulation agenda. Lobbyists, trade associations, PACs, and other influential operatives have poured a massive amount of time and resources into rolling back Obama-era reforms—and now those efforts seem to be paying off bigly.

Just this week, two mandates fought for by the Obama administration have been stopped in their tracks by Trump appointees. On Monday, regulations regarding nutrition requirements for school lunches were eased just as federal requirements for calorie labelling—set to take effect nationwide this Friday—were also put on hold for a year. These moves have many policy experts questioning whether advances in nutrition made over the past eight years won't soon become a distant memory.

Michelle Obama's mandate to make school lunches healthier took the first hit when the recently confirmed US Department of Agriculture head, Sonny Perdue, announced that he'll be giving schools more "flexibility" in meeting federal nutrition standards. The announcement, pitched by the USDA as "Ag Secretary Perdue Moves to Make School Meals Great Again," was made earlier this week in a school cafeteria where Perdue ate a school lunch and boasted to children that he "wouldn't be as big as I am today without chocolate milk." The announcement was a direct jab at the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which was passed as part of the former First Lady's "Let's Move" campaign against childhood obesity. Under that law, school meals were required to be more nutritious: sugary drinks and candy bars were replaced with lower-calorie and more nutritious choices, and breakfast became a school-wide norm in low-income districts.

Defending the rollback, Perdue said, "This announcement is the result of years of feedback from students, schools, and food service experts about the challenges they are facing in meeting the final regulations for school meals." An overwhelming majority of all schools nationwide are already in compliance with the 2010 law—and many parents and teachers support the Obama-era standards—but Perdue argues kids are throwing out their more nutritious meals, and so the standards simply need to be changed.

When MUNCHIES asked Tom Colicchio, the iconic chef and cofounder of Food Policy Action, about Perdue's claim regarding student feedback, he told us, "My kids wouldn't take baths for weeks on end if I let them, so why should we just let them make these choices when it comes to nutrition? Kids need to learn about nutrition and they need good modeling. One good way to start that is with school lunches."

The ten food policy experts we spoke with unanimously reject the idea that food waste justifies serving kids food that is categorically proven to be less healthy. Beth C. Weitzman, a public health and policy professor at NYU, pointed out to MUNCHIES, "Plate waste has been a problem in school cafeterias long before" the 2010 guidelines were put in place. Margo Wootan, the nutrition policy director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest told us, "I reject the notion that healthy food doesn't taste good. To reduce food waste, better to use proven strategies like taste testing and recess before lunch than to serve kids unhealthy food." She also points out that over 95 percent of schools are already meeting the Obama-era nutrition standards and "studies show that food waste at schools has not increased since the school meal standards were updated." Dawn M. Undurraga, a nutritionist at the Environmental Working Group, added, "Having worked in a school cafeteria, I can confirm that the amount of food waste is upsetting. Kids need consistency and structure with support. It can take 15 times or more for kids to try and learn to enjoy new foods." All three believe offering healthy foods to students is a better approach than going back to the pre-2010 food menus.

READ MORE: What Would Censorship of the USDA Mean for America?

The second blow to food policy advances came the same day when the US Food and Drug Administration put on hold a rule—seven years in the making—that would have required any restaurant, grocery, cafeteria, movie theater or convenience store chain that sells food with 20 or more locations to post calorie counts on menu boards or signs. That rule was supposed to take effect on Friday, May 5—but will now be delayed a full year while Republicans try to push a revised law through Congress, the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act. That law would dilute the rules that were to come into effect this week by allowing businesses that do heavy delivery and online business—like pizza delivery chains—to only post nutrition information on their websites, among other rollbacks. The bill has passed the House of Representatives, but has not yet gone to a vote in the Senate.

The Obama-era law, which was part of the Affordable Care Act of 2010, was so close to being implemented that many chains—including Subway and Panera Bread—are already posting calorie counts on their menus coast to coast. In addition to calories, the law required posting of total fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, fiber, sugars and protein content. Still, opponents to the law claimed that it is overly burdensome and expensive for restaurants to have to print nutrition information. Tom Colicchio disagrees. His nine 'Wichcraft stores in New York voluntarily post calorie information because, Colicchio says, "People want information, they want transparency, and they want knowledge."

"It doesn't cost money and it's not burdensome. We put everything—the ingredients and the amounts—through an app and it tells you the calorie count. When we made a decision to go ahead and do it, I thought it was gonna be a pain to do it. I was surprised at how easy it was." Colicchio also told MUNCHIES that the expense argument is "disingenuous." He says, "Every time a restaurant does a special, they print materials. So to add a line of calorie counts, that doesn't cost any money—they're already printing materials up."

Lobbyists played a key role in putting the halt on calorie labeling; among the many food industry groups that put pressure on the current administration was an organization called the American Pizza Community. That group was formed in 2010, specifically to oppose the label requirements, and is under the sway of Domino's, although it styles itself as the voice of America's local pizza joints. The group now tells MUNCHIES that it "commends the Administration's decision" to push back the compliance date to 2018 but that it "support[s] menu labeling and look[s] forward to working with policy makers to … comply with flexibility while continuing to thrive and create jobs."

Other business groups are pleased to see the label law threatened. Greg Ferrara of the National Grocers Association, told MUNCHIES: "Unlike chain restaurants, supermarkets operate in a variety of formats without standard menu items. We applaud the Administration for acting swiftly to address the concerns of Main Street grocers." A spokesperson for the National Association of Convenience Stores told us "the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act would provide a more practical and flexible approach."

While the business community may be pleased with the administration's moves this week, public health advocates are not. Patty Lovera, assistant director at Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit that champions healthy food and clean water, said, "Secretary Perdue's objective is not to fix our broken food system, it's to attack common sense regulations that give people clear information about the food they eat and feed their families." Jaydee Hanson, senior policy analyst at Center for Food Safety, agrees: "Calorie labeling is not the only thing that is necessary, but it's an essential thing. For labeling to work, it has to be on the package or right where consumers look when they first walk into a store. It's not over regulation to give consumers that information."

The debate over the efficacy of calorie and nutrition labelling, though, is more complex than a simple business-versus-nutrition dichotomy. Researchers have poked holes in one-size-fits-all label requirements, and some are even questioning whether we should be worrying about calories in the first place. As nutritionist Andy Bellatti, strategic director and co-founder of Dietitians for Professional Integrity, points out, "When it comes to policy, it's important to avoid the 'silver bullet' mentality. Our nation's chronic health issues don't live and die by calorie labeling; we also need to address other issues like agricultural policy, marketing to children, and food assistance programs. And, let's also remember that while calories matter, they are not the only factor in determining the healthfulness of a food. After all, a 100-calorie cookie is not a better choice than a 150-calorie pack of almonds."

Similarly, an NYU study published last fall in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing showed that calorie posting efforts in restaurants are not always particularly effective in creating concrete diet changes. The researchers collected data on the calorie labeling effort that's been going on in Philadelphia since 2008. Turns out, only 8 percent of consumers surveyed said they changed their eating habits as a result of the calorie postings. However, the authors of that study said that the effectiveness of any labeling program depends on context and accessibility. The Obama-era law had already corrected for several of the recommendations advocated by the researchers, including adding statements to menus that explain how many calories an average person should consume in a day. Another study, this one conducted in New York City, found that 15 percent of customers reported using menu labeling and purchased 106 fewer calories in fast-food lunches as a result.

Clearly, a balance needs to be struck between the interests of businesses and the needs of an overweight public with mass health problems that derive from poor eating habits. Whether the Trump administration is interested in striking that balance—or even capable of doing so—remains to be seen. Environmental and health advocates, like Melanie Benesh, a legislative attorney for the Environmental Working Group, are not hopeful: "Rolling back menu labeling requirements would certainly fit in with what Steve Bannon called 'deconstruction of the administrative state' and is yet another example of the attack on common sense regulations designed to protect public health."

But despite this week's time travel back to pre-Obama food policies, some still believe that the state of public health and nutrition in America is brighter than ever before. Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest told MUNCHIES, "There's no doubt that the Trump Administration is hostile to regulation and hostile to science-based policy generally. The good news is that the American people have never been more interested in nutrition and health. Consumers generally aren't interested in turning back the clock, and undoing the progress underway on things like nutrition facts labeling, food safety inspections, school nutrition, or menu labeling at restaurants. Despite the threats to progress posed by the Trump Administration, we're relentlessly optimistic about the future of food policy."