Every now and again, school lunch makes the news. Some may remember the Reagan-era proposal, scrapped after public outcry, to count ketchup as a vegetable. Albuquerque schools made national headlines in 2009 for their “sandwich of shame” policy of giving children whose parents were behind in payments a cold cheese sandwich, fruit and milk instead of the hot lunch that met federal nutrition standards. In 2011 Congress generated buzz for deeming that tomato paste on pizza could continue to count as a vegetable when the USDA wanted to eliminate the provision. And just this past spring, an unexpected storm made its way across the national school food landscape when the School Nutrition Association (SNA), a non-profit that represents school food service providers, fought back against the improved nutrition standards they initially fought for.
The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP) are just two of the federal nutrition programs reauthorized by Congress every five years under the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act. Other programs within the reauthorization cover preschool, summer meals, pregnant and breastfeeding women, and getting fresh produce onto more plates. The last reauthorization occurred in 2010, with passage of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), and aimed to improve health, prevent obesity and alleviate hunger among children. Nutrition and public health advocates, including SNA, worked together for much-needed and long overdue improvements to these programs. Using evidence-based guidance, the HHFKA called for significant changes to school meal programs. In a nutshell, schools would transition to “whole grain-rich” foods (e.g., flour tortillas made with half whole wheat flour, brown rice instead of white rice), require that kids select a fruit or vegetable at lunch, serve 1% or nonfat milk (flavored milk only if it’s nonfat) and, over 10 years, lower sodium targets. Schools would receive technical assistance and support to make these changes and an additional six cents per meal.
Schools have been implementing the new guidelines incrementally since 2012, and according to the USDA, 90 percent of schools are meeting guidelines, meal participation, and school revenues are on the rise, kids are eating more fruits and vegetables, and food waste hasn’t increased. But amid claims from some schools that fruits and vegetables were being thrown in the trash, kids were refusing lower sodium school lunches, and participation rates were down, the SNA did an about-face and urged rollbacks of the nutrition standards. SNA requested that the whole grain requirement be relaxed, that schools not be required to serve a fruit or vegetable at lunch and that the sodium reduction be suspended. The USDA responded by delaying the whole wheat pasta requirement by two years to give food manufacturers more time to tweak their formulas, and by providing more targeted technical assistance to those schools that have struggled the most, but schools are expected to adhere to the remaining standards.
The challenges cited by SNA, while needing to be addressed, do not preclude the need for healthy school meal standards.
The challenges cited by SNA, while needing to be addressed, do not preclude the need for healthy school meal standards. Consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-sodium foods are known to protect against childhood obesity and the risk of heart disease, diabetes and other chronic disease. When a majority of children are eating one- to two-thirds of their daily calories in school, it is imperative to provide them with healthy meals. In New Mexico, with rates of childhood obesity higher than the national average, we lead the nation in child hunger, are second in child poverty and second to last in child well-being. By third grade, 20 percent of New Mexican children are obese, with higher rates seen in American Indian (29.5 percent) and Hispanic (22.8 percent) children. Obesity is concentrated in rural areas and in areas with limited food access, which also happen to be where more schools have struggled to implement the healthier nutrition standards.
School meals provide a critical safety net for vulnerable children at risk for hunger, who have limited access to healthier foods outside of school. Hungry children tend to have lower academic achievement, more attention problems, absenteeism, more difficulty getting along with peers and higher anxiety and depression than children from food secure households. Overall, 30 percent of New Mexico’s children are food insecure, ranging from 16 percent in Los Alamos County to 39 percent in Luna County. In the 2013-2014 school year, of the 345,000 New Mexican children enrolled in schools participating in the NSLP, 61 percent qualified for free lunch, and 10 percent for reduced-price lunch.
All of these factors warrant strong nutrition programs that meet, or even exceed, current nutrition standards. The success of this hinges on not just the hard work and dedication of those in school foodservice, but also the support of school administrators, parents and community members, and most of all, students. Across the Unites States and in New Mexico, school foodservice directors and administrators have been highlighting the need to engage students in the process, marketing new foods to kids through tasting programs and creating venues for student input. As someone recently said, “Just because kids don’t like math, doesn’t mean we stop teaching math.”
The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act will expire in September 2015, and the advocacy work and Congressional hearings for reauthorization are already underway. Meaningful change, whether in large federal nutrition programs or to established taste preferences of children, takes time. As early childhood nutrition standards are also being improved, more environmental support for healthy eating will be in place for children and parents. Healthy habits established early track through adolescence and into adulthood, so maybe, in the not too distant future, whole wheat tortillas will be the norm, and they’ll be asking for seconds on those leafy greens.