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Making School Food Healthier

Some kids have already started attending classes, and most will be back in school after Labor Day.  Many parents may justifiably be wondering about recent efforts to improve the quality of the food served to their children in these schools.

According to an Institute of Medicine Report released in October 2009, school-age children eat too many discretionary calories, too few fruits and vegetables–particularly dark green and dark orange fruits and vegetables, too few whole grains and low-fat dairy products, and too many solid fats and sugars.  Today more than 30 percent of American children are obese, and the risks to children’s health are also risks to the economy, with billions of dollars spent each year treating obesity-related conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have identified increased fresh fruit and vegetable consumption as one of six top strategies to control and prevent obesity.

In February, 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama launched the Let’s Move! campaign to solve the childhood obesity epidemic within a generation.  As part of this effort, President Barack Obama established the Task Force on Childhood Obesity to develop and implement an interagency action plan to solve the problem of childhood obesity within a generation.  The action plan’s goal is to return to a childhood obesity rate of just 5 percent by 2030, which was the rate before childhood obesity first began to rise in the late 1970s.  In May, Mrs. Obama and members of the Childhood Obesity Task Force unveiled the Task Force action plan: Solving the Problem of Childhood Obesity Within a Generation.  A key recommendation of the action plan was to provide healthy food in schools, through improvements in federally supported school lunches and breakfasts; upgrading the nutritional quality of other foods sold in schools; and improving nutrition education and the overall health of the school environment.

Passage of the pending Child Nutrition Act is the legislative centerpiece of Let’s Move!  By passing strong reauthorization legislation, the Administration hopes to reduce hunger, promote access to healthy food, and improve the overall health and nutrition of children.  Congress is still working to complete the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, the major federal legislation that determines school food policy and resources. The Act is reauthorized only once every five years, and is therefore an important opportunity to shape the future of school food.  The School Breakfast Program and the National School Lunch Program are permanently authorized. However the other child nutrition programs that affect school nutrition operators must be reauthorized every five years. The Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004 expired on September 30, 2009, but was extended until September 30, 2010. [1]

On August 5, 2010, the Senate unanimously passed its version of the Child Nutrition Act. The bill would partially fulfill President Obama’s request for $10 billion in additional funding for child nutrition programs by providing $4.5 billion over the next decade. The bill now moves on to the House.  The House version of the bill has already passed through committee, and the final bill will need to pass the House by September 30, before the current program expires.  The House version of the bill costs $8 billion over ten years, but does not yet have sufficient offsets.

The Senate’s version of the legislation reauthorizes federal child nutrition programs, sets nutritional standards for all food sold in schools, and increases the reimbursement rate–for the first time in over three decades–by approximately 6 cents a meal.  The Act would expand the number of low-income children who are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals, largely by streamlining the paperwork required to receive the meals. It would also expand a program to provide after-school meals to at-risk children.  Foods sold in schools would be required to meet new nutrition guidelines, whether sold in the school lunch line or in vending machines. Schools would still be allowed to sell pizza and other favorites, though schools may have to substitute healthier ingredients to qualify.  School vending machines could be prohibited from selling the candy bars and high-sugar sodas that have long provided revenue for extracurricular programs.

Improved school lunch advocates have praised the Senate’s efforts, but also argue that the House should push for implementation of its own broader and more comprehensive reauthorization bill. One criticism of the Senate bill is that it makes strong investments in improved nutrition but does not make needed investments in program access. The Senate bill would expand after school suppers nationwide and would facilitate enrollment in free school meals, but would do little to address other gap periods when children are known to lack access to food: breakfast, weekends, and summer.  The House Education and Labor Committee approved a strong bill in July, the Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act of 2010 (H.R.5504). This bill includes the same improvements to nutritional quality as the Senate bill but does far more to invest in increased program access. The House bill would significantly increase access to food at breakfast, after school, on weekends, and during the summer. [2]

Another significant criticism of the Senate bill is that the Senate’s bill’s programs would be partially paid for from another important family-assistance program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)–the former Food Stamp Program.  SNAP serves more than 40 million low-income Americans each month, half of them children.  As 107 members of Congress wrote in a recent letter to Speaker Pelosi, cutting food assistance for families to pay for food assistance for children would essentially be robbing Peter to pay Paul. [2]

In addition to the pending proposed federal legislation, numerous and diverse efforts to improve the quality of food served in schools are taking place in other forums, on a national, state, and local level.  On August 23, 2010, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack encouraged schools throughout the country to participate in the Healthier US School Challenge (HUSSC), an initiative that helps improve the health and nutrition of children.  USDA created the HUSSC to recognize schools that maintain healthy school environments by improving the quality of meals and increasing physical activity and nutrition education.  USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) provides schools monetary incentives for earning HUSSC certification, and a range of educational and technical assistance materials that promote consumption of fruits and vegetables and other key aspects of the Dietary Guidelines–including a Menu Planner for Healthy School Meals. On August 25, 2010, the Agriculture Secretary also announced that USDA will establish a People’s Garden School Pilot Program to develop and run community gardens at eligible high-poverty schools.  Through this program, students involved in the gardens would learn agriculture production practices, diet, and nutrition, learning outcomes would be evaluated. [3]

As an example of action on the local level, in May 2010 the Council of the District of Columbia unanimously passed the Healthy Schools Act of 2010.  The Act is intended to substantially improve the health, wellness, and nutrition of the public and charter school students in the District of Columbia, and took effect when the 2010-2011 school year began on August 23, 2010.   More than 55 percent of the residents of the District of Colum
bia are overweight or obese–including nearly half of all children.  In some wards, the rate of overweight and obesity exceeds 70 percent.  The Healthy Schools Act will, in part: require all school meals to meet the USDA Healthier US Gold Level standards; require all school meals to meet the Institute of Medicine’s nutritional standards for saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium; improve the quality of school meals by providing an additional 10 cents for each breakfast and lunch meal served; and establish a farm-to-school program, providing an additional 5 cents for each lunch meal that includes local foods. [4]

Local food is gaining a stronger foothold in U.S. schools as the result of changes in government legislation and procurement rules, and the work of organizations such as the Farm to School Network–which fosters and institutionalizes programs that link local farms with schools.  Changes to federal and state legislation and procurement rules are making it easier for schools to access locally produced foods for government-funded meal programs. The Farm to School Network has worked successfully to strengthen ties between local farmers and schools. Since 2004, it’s estimated that U.S. farm-to-school programs have increased from just 400 to more than 2,000 across 45 states, involving nearly 9,000 schools and more than 2,000 school districts.  A 2009 survey by the School Nutrition Association shows that 34 percent of schools across the country are serving locally sourced foods, either occasionally or every day, while an additional 22 percent plan to do so. [5]

Farm to school programs improve nutrition for children that participate in the school lunch program and lead to significant changes in their eating habits.  Farm to school programs also offer immediate and long-term economic benefits; according to a study in Oregon, every dollar school districts spent on purchases of local food stimulated an additional eighty-seven cents in economic activity. A farm to school program was first authorized by the Child Nutrition Act reauthorization of 2004, but funds were never appropriated for the effort. In 2010, the Senate’s version of the Child Nutrition Act provides $40 million for farm to school programs. [6]

Celebrity chefs are also getting involved, drawing increased attention to the need for increased school food quality, and providing individual solutions.  In June, hundreds of chefs gathered at the White House to launch a national adopt-a-school program. Dubbed “Chefs Move to Schools”,  the initiative has attracted both stars of the culinary universe–Rachael Ray, Tom Colicchio and Cat Cora–and also a number of other chefs who staff corporate kitchens, food banks, and culinary schools. Nearly 1,000 chefs have signed on to the program.  To date, they have already begun teaching cooking classes to hundreds of students and parents, have helped to plant school gardens, and have established a nonprofit catering service with a mission to create healthful, affordable food for public school cafeterias. [7]

Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution television show recently won an Emmy at the Emmy ceremony in Hollywood.  Oliver, a British celebrity chef turned health activist, has used the success of his show to publicize the launch of his petition to change the menus in public school lunch halls and to reign in the obesity epidemic.  Even though his show only consisted of six episodes, it gathered a significant following and numerous awards. [7]

It is obviously far too early to determine if Michelle Obama’s ambitious goal to significantly decrease childhood obesity within a generation is realistic. A critical step towards that goal will be the passage of a comprehensive and robust Child Nutrition Act prior to the present September 30 deadline. Some of the organizations that are presently providing means to contact Congress requesting the passage of a comprehensive Child Nutrition Act in the next few weeks include: the School Nutrition Association, www.schoolnutrition.org the Healthy Schools Campaign, www.healthyschoolscampaign.org, and the National Farm to School Network  www.farmtoschool.org.

References:

[1]    “USDA Encourages Schools to Take the Healthier US School Challenge to Help Improve the Nutrition of School Children Nationwide”, USDA Press Release, August 24, 2010.

[2]    “Why the House Child Nutrition Bill is Better for Children”, Vicki B. Escarra (CEO of Feeding America), posted August 24, 2010, The Huffington Post.

[3]    “USDA Announces Funding to Expand School Community Gardens and Garden-Based Learning Opportunities”, USDA Press Release, August 25, 2010.

[4]    “Healthy Schools Act of 2010”, Press Release, Mary Cheh, Ward 3 DC Council.

[5]    “Local Food Makes Gains in U.S. Schools”, Valerie Ward, August 13, 2010, http://greenliving.suite101.com/article.cfm/local-food-makes-gains-in-us-schools#ixzz0xZ9sz1W7.

[6]    “41 Organizations Urge Congress to Fund Farm to School Nutrition Program”,  May 4, 2010, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

[7]    “Chefs Move to Schools: A nutritious program kids can sink their teeth into”, Jane Black, Washington Post, June 4, 2010.

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