The USDA’s decision to “relax” guidelines for healthier school lunches established under an initiative by Former First Lady Michelle Obama is getting sharp criticism from public health experts and policy makers.

Rolling back standards

In one of his first official acts as Agriculture Secretary, Sonny Perdue said he would roll back nutrition standards that require schools to cut salt in meals, serve fewer whole grains and serve only nonfat milk.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said the move reverses progress made recently in the fight against childhood obesity and malnutrition. “Just days into his new job as Secretary of USDA, Secretary Perdue has decided to put special interests ahead of the health of America’s children,” DeLauro said in a statement.

Obesity skyrocketing among U.S. kids

The percentage of children with obesity in the United States has more than tripled since the 1970s, with about one in five school-aged children (ages 6–19) classified as obese, according to the CDC. Children with obesity are at higher risk for asthma, sleep apnea, bone and joint problems, type 2 diabetes, and risk factors for heart disease.

Perdue said the change was is based on feedback from students, schools and food service experts about the challenges they are facing in meeting the standards in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed in 2010 under the Obama administration. Critics of the measure – such as the School Nutrition Association – said the standards were too rigid and resulted in children throwing food away.

Supporters disagree.

Kids eating more veggies and fruit, less sodium

“In the last five years, nearly 100 percent of the nation’s schools have complied with updated school meal standards,” said American Heart Association (AHA) CEO Nancy Brown. “Kids across the country have clearly benefited from these changes. Their meals are now lower in sodium and calories and offer more whole grains. In addition, young people are eating 16 percent more vegetables and 23 percent more fruit.”

Brown said leaving the standards in place would potentially to decrease childhood obesity cases by more than two million by 2025.

“We don’t understand why the USDA and some members of Congress want to fix something that clearly is not broken.”

Sodium a critical health issue

Brown said the USDA’s “more accomodating” approach to meeting sodium standards is especially worrisome.

“If we don’t move forward with the sodium standards, there could be serious health consequences for our kids. Children who eat high levels of sodium are about 35 percent more likely to have elevated blood pressure, which can ultimately lead to heart disease or stroke.”

“Overall, the AHA is very disappointed that the USDA has decided to put special interests back on the school menu. We strongly urge the agency and Congress not to give politics priority over the health of our children.”