The new, healthier school meals being served to America's school-aged children are filled with more (and more varied) vegetables, fruit, and whole grains, and less salt, saturated fat, and trans fat. The standards set calorie maximums for the first time and lower calorie minimums to better ensure that school meals address obesity, as well as hunger. That's unambiguously good news for kids, but these meals represent something else: a rare victory over special interests.
To be sure, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act -- the law that reauthorized the child nutrition programs -- didn't emerge entirely unscathed. The surprisingly influential frozen pizza industry won language from Congress qualifying pizza (with tomato sauce) as a vegetable, and French fry manufacturers and potato farmers fought off proposed curbs on how often fries could be offered. But otherwise, in a town where lobbyists for dairy, beef, pork, sugar, salt, and other food industry sectors usually get their way, it's a minor miracle that the new lunches being served around the country are as wholesome, attractive, and tasty as they are.
The National School Lunch Program provides meals to 31 million children each day, accounting for a third of many students' daily calorie intakes. With one out of every three children in America overweight or obese and 15 years since the last update of the program, it was time for a change.
Ensuring that school meals are healthy and in line with current nutrition is not only important for kids' health, but also for academics. Healthy kids learn better. Research shows that kindergartners who do not have reliable, healthy meals are noticeably behind their peers in reading and math by the third grade.
School cafeteria managers are working hard to implement the new standards, but this is a tough job. They need the support of parents, teachers, administrators, food manufacturers, and others in order to overcome a number of challenges. Even the healthiest foods are only healthy if they are actually eaten, and let's face it, kids have become all too accustomed to junk food. We'll have to work against the $2 billion a year that is spent on marketing unhealthy products to kids.
Fortunately, it's possible to get most kids to eat fruits and veggies. Schools have engaged students with taste tests, fun facts about new fruits and vegetables, or student votes on their favorite options. Parents can help by reinforcing healthy eating at home and encouraging their children to try the new menu options. Teachers can try the new school lunches and speak supportively about them with students. School administrators can support the program by showing leadership and support for the programs and help ensure the new standards are fully implemented. State child nutrition programs need to continue to support school efforts and provide ideas for menus and recipes. And companies need to produce products with more whole grains and less salt, so schools have a wider variety of healthy options.
Back to school can be a time of adjustment. Just as students might need time to adjust to new teachers and subjects, the school lunch program might need time before it is fully accepted by students or financially successful.
And of course, we still need to be vigilant to fend off any new industry efforts to sneak junk foods back into the school lunch program. Iowa Congressman Steve King, for instance -- never before seen as much of an anti-hunger crusader -- is sponsoring legislation that would repeal the sensible caps on calories on school meals. Hard to see how anyone thinks that 850 calories is not enough for most high schoolers. Or perhaps some well-heeled food manufacturer wants to sell more of its product to the government, regardless of nutrition.
The National Academies' Institute of Medicine identified appropriate amounts of calories to meet most children's energy needs. Student athletes who may need more food throughout the day could take advantage of after-school snack or after-school supper programs or could purchase additional a la carte items to supplement their school lunch. Not all students are linebackers, and we shouldn't feed them like they are.
Numerous members of Congress stood up for children and stood up to food manufacturers, and countless fed-up parents urged them along. First Lady Michelle Obama also played a valuable leadership role as a champion of healthy eating and children. If you want to join the movement and make sure healthy and delicious meals are here to stay in your child's school, please visit schoolfoods.org/back2school.
This article was co-written with CSPI Director of Nutrition Policy Margo Wootan.
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