Should schools be required to serve meals low in sodium, rich in whole grains, and with fat-free milk?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture under the Trump administration doesn't think so.
The USDA earlier this month moved to loosen the standards on school lunches that Congress approved in 2010 under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. The new action allows states to decide what standards to adopt.
FoodCorps — a Portland-based nonprofit that's worked to connect kids with healthy food across Oregon and the nation since 2011, is one of the groups on the front lines of the healthy school-lunch debate.
"We are extremely disappointed to see (this) action to relax science-based nutrition standards for school meals," says Curt Ellis, 37, FoodCorps' chief executive officer and co-founder.
"We believe it's essential for school meals to offer students a strong foundation for their learning, and to set them up for healthy, productive futures."
Before co-founding FoodCorps, Ellis was a producer and writer for the award-winning documentary "King Corn," which traces the role of subsidized commodities in the American obesity epidemic.
The USDA argues that the strict healthy-school-food requirements cost school districts and states an additional $1.22 billion in 2015.
The agency also argues that "most states" are reporting fewer students are participating in school lunch programs, apparently because they don't find it "palatable."
"A perfect example is in the South, where the schools want to serve grits," says Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. "But the whole-grain variety has little black flakes in it, and the kids won't eat it. The school is compliant with the whole-grain requirements, but no one is eating the grits. That doesn't make any sense."
FoodCorps says that's the wrong approach — that offering school meals higher in refined grains, salt and more added sugars is not the answer to a $1.4 trillion obesity epidemic in the United States.
With the help of 215 AmeriCorps members serving in high-needs schools nationwide — FoodCorps reports conducting 2,039 taste tests, adding 664 healthy recipes and ingredients to school menus and reaching 177,879 students with nutrition education last year.
"From our front-row seat, we know that changing a lunch line from french fries to fresh greens takes time, and getting kids excited to try new foods takes creativity," Ellis says.
"But we owe it to our kids to give them a healthy start. We don't water down academic standards because some schools have difficulty meeting them. Why should we do that with nutrition standards?"
FoodCorps recently moved its national headquarters into a more prominent space, relocating from an under-the-radar spot in industrial Northwest Portland into The Redd on Salmon Street, EcoTrust's new food-related hub in Portland's central eastside.
"We're not on an island anymore," says Ellis, who works with a team of 30 staff members. "Being on a campus with other food entrepreneurs — it just opens up so many options."
Next door, there is a Community Supported Agriculture business selling wild salmon (Wilder Land & Sea); an online healthy foods grocery (New Foods Market); a bike delivery service (B-Line Sustainable Urban Delivery); pedal-powered fresh soup delivery (SoupCycle) and a giant cold storage, aggregation, packaging and distribution center for local businesses.
The Redd West, as this building is called, also houses three shared commercial kitchen spaces. On a recent morning, a giant pot of pork broth was simmering on the stove as a base for the fresh-made ramen noodles at Marukin, across the street.
The Redd East — which also will be focused on organizations and businesses supporting local food — is scheduled to break ground this summer.
By the numbers:
• For every dollar of FoodCorps' federal funding, the organization raises $4 in private funds.
• Throughout Oregon, FoodCorps' work impacts 40 schools in urban centers as well as the tiniest communities of Eastern and Southern Oregon.
• Last year, FoodCorps sourced 38,000 pounds of food from Oregon farmers for school meal programs, and recruited
481 volunteers from across the state to help in the work.