Donald Trump marked his 100th day at President of the United States on April 29, 2017. Some notable tasks accomplished in these first 100 days in office include the naming of the Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, as well as introducing an outline of a tax reform. But one decision made under Trump’s supervision in these first 100 days will directly affect those who are associated with child nutrition – the Senate voted on April 24 to confirm

[former] Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue as the 31st U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.

As the title of this blog suggests, you’re probably asking yourself “Sonny Per-who?”

Sonny Per-who?

So, who is Sonny Perdue?

Let’s start with his background. USA Today tells us this politician knows a thing or two about agriculture. Perdue grew up on a dairy farm in Georgia, he received a doctorate in veterinary medicine from the University of Georgia, and has had an ownership stake in fertilizer businesses, grain elevators and in an agricultural trucking company. He held a position in the Georgia Senate from 1991 to 2002, and served as the 81st Governor of Georgia from 2003 to 2011. Secretary Perdue has been affiliated with the Republican Party since 1998 – although he was formerly a Democrat. Perdue was Georgia’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, according to NBC.

(You might also remember Sonny Perdue as the governor who called Georgians to pray for rain in 2007 while the south was in a severe drought.)

Why him?

Many pundits speculated that President Trump would select a Latino politician, to represent the nation’s largest minority population, for this position. So, why did President Trump select Perdue? According to the Washington Post, Trump stated the following:

“From growing up on a farm to being governor of a big agriculture state, he has spent his whole life understanding and solving the challenges our farmers face, and he is going to deliver big results for all Americans who earn their living off the land.”

How does this affect child nutrition?

Let’s get down to the real issues. You may be asking yourself, “What does this selection have to do with me? Where does this politician stand on important issues? How will the selection of Secretary Perdue affect child nutrition?”

Well, let’s start with the big one: just yesterday, Perdue announced that the USDA will “provide greater flexibility in nutrition requirements for school meal programs in order to make food choices both healthful and appealing to students.” Perdue signed a proclamation which begins the process of restoring local control of guidelines on whole grains, sodium, and milk, according to the USDA.

Perdue came to this decision of signing said proclamation upon further examination of child nutrition programs across the country. He put it simply – if the students aren’t eating the food they’re served and are tossing it in the trash, it defeats the purpose of the nutritional requirements that school food service professionals must adhere to. And according to USDA figures, these requirements cost school districts a whopping $1.22 billion in FY 2015. While these costs are increasing, participation is decreasing – one million students nationwide choose to bring their own lunch each day. This leads to a decrease in revenue for school lunch programs across the country.

The war on whole grains, sodium and milk

Now let’s talk specifics about this proclamation, which aims to do away with current regulations that are overly restrictive and costly to implement. First on the chopping block are whole grains – it’s tough for schools to serve whole grain versions of the foods that kids know and love. The USDA will “allow states to grant exemptions to schools experiencing hardship in serving 100 percent of grain products as whole-grain rich for School Year 2017-2018.” As for sodium – for School Years 2017-2018 through 2020, schools will not be required to meet Sodium Target 2; Target 1 will be compliant. Throughout this time, USDA will dedicate resources to helping child nutrition programs develop menus that are “low in sodium and appealing to students”. And finally, milk – Perdue will direct USDA to “begin the regulatory process for schools to serve 1% flavored milk through the school processes.”

In addition to research of child nutrition programs and consultations with the staff that operate them, Perdue has relied on his own instincts and family ties to reach the conclusions spelled out in his proclamation.

“I’ve got 14 grandchildren, and there is no way that I would propose something if I didn’t think it was good, healthful and the right thing to do,” he said. “And here’s the thing about local control: it means that this new flexibility will give schools and states the option of doing what we’re laying out here today.  These are not mandates on schools.”

You spoke, he listened.

Remember when child nutrition professionals “charged the hill” in D.C. at the Legislative Action Conference last week? You may also remember the School Nutrition Association’s 2017 Position Paper, and even our current 2018 Position Paper which was released in January 2018. These documents requested maintaining Target 1 levels for sodium, and urging lawmakers to ease up on the whole grain requirements. It seems that you spoke, and Perdue listened – if you listened to his speech at the 2017 SNA Annual National Conference (video here), it’s clear that he’s on our side. SNA has continued to advocate for flexibility under federal nutrition standards “to help ease menu planning challenges and appeal to diverse student tastes”, and is appreciative of Secretary Perdue’s support to provide flexibility to school meal programs.

The other issues spelled out in the Position Paper that SNA hopes Perdue will address in his coming days in office include protecting school meal programs from block grant proposals, and expanding USDA Foods to support the School Breakfast Program.

SNA’s stance

In regards to Secretary Perdue’s appointment as a whole, SNA President Becky Domokos-Bays, PhD, RD, SNS issued the following statement:

“School Nutrition Association looks forward to working with Secretary Perdue to find ways to strengthen school meal programs, which support the success of more than 30 million students each school day. We hope Secretary Perdue will be a champion for these programs, which have ensured students have access to healthy meals at school for more than 70 years.”

Secretary Perdue even made an appearance at the 2017 School Nutrition Association Annual National Conference in Atlanta. Read more about his speech and watch the video here

He’s ready.

Perdue seems eager to begin his work as the Secretary of Agriculture. He issued the following statement in a recent USDA press release:

“The only legacy that I seek is the only one that any grandparent or parent seeks – to be good stewards, and to hand off our nation, our home, our fields, our forests, and our farms to the next generation in better shape than we found it. Making sure that Americans who make their livelihoods in the agriculture industry have the ability to thrive will be one of my top priorities. I am committed to serving the customers of USDA, and I will be an unapologetic advocate for American agriculture.”

To keep up with Secretary Perdue and his efforts for the USDA, you can follow him on Twitter: @SecretarySonny

Share with us!

We’d love to hear your thoughts on the selection of Sonny Perdue for the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, and the proclamation to restore local control of guidelines on whole grains, sodium and milk in school nutrition programs. Do you think these changes will help or hurt America’s school meal programs in the coming days, and why? Please share your opinions in the comments below!