Competitive Foods: A Parent’s Perspective

March 20, 2013

Please join us in telling the USDA why it’s so important to implement effective standards that ensure our kids have access to healthy, nutritious food throughout the school day.

by Mark Bishop

Last week, I picked up my son from school, and when we got home, he couldn’t wait to tell me all about legumes. His class is in the middle of a program from Purple Asparagus, where the students have weekly activities learning about nutrition, and as we made dinner together, he told me about all the beans that were in the legume family. Like many six-year-olds, Henry isn’t always enthusiastic about eating his vegetables, and he may very occasionally look at the greens on his plate with disdain, but he understands why they are important. He understands the concepts of how some foods are “sometimes foods” and what constitutes a healthy meal.

As a parent, I work hard to teach my son about healthy food choices, just as many of us are raising our children to make good choices. And we want to know that our schools are supporting our efforts to make sure our children develop the skills and habits that will lead to a healthy life. For the first time since 1979, the USDA has released proposed nutritional standards for “competitive foods,” or food sold on school grounds outside the National School Lunch Program. That includes a la carte cafeteria items, as well as snacks and beverages in vending machines and school stores. We applaud the USDA for taking this important next step, but we must also do our part to ensure these proposed changes go into effect and the USDA acts on behalf of the health of our children.

I understand that it is impossible for kids to completely avoid junk food in today’s society, and I know I can’t shelter my son from junk food altogether. But schools are institutions of growth and learning, places that teach children how to be productive citizens. As such, schools must be positioned to empower children to make healthy choices and teach values that support a healthy lifestyle so they become healthy adults.

The current default of unhealthy competitive foods undermines the values I and other parents try to teach our children and make our roles more difficult. But more than that, they create difficulties for the schools themselves. A lack of nutritious food can lead to a lack of focus and poor performance, not to mention a greater risk for health problems that lead to poor health and academic outcomes. We have standards for math and for reading, and here in Illinois, we even have a requirement for daily physical education; why not nutritional standards for food sold in our schools?

I also understand that standing up for healthy schools isn’t always easy. Committed, engaged parents play an essential role to any school community, in advocating and raising funds for everything from new soccer fields to new computers for classrooms. But there can be a certain stigma associated with advocating for healthy snacks–no one wants to be the parent who takes away birthday cupcakes or fundraiser pizza. By offering a set of standards from which to work, the proposed USDA competitive foods regulations would support those parents who may want to speak up on behalf of their children’s health but have not due to this stigma or give parents who are already on the frontlines of the issue a reference point on which to base their work. Instead of the debate over snacks, parents can work together to devise creative healthy solutions for classroom celebrations and fundraisers.

For parents who do want to get involved in implementing these healthier options, there is something easy you can do now. The USDA is collecting comments through April 9, and want to hear from everyone. We know from past experiences that the snack and beverage industries will be making their opinions known, and we need fellow parents who are committed to raise their voices and advocate for healthier options. We have partnered with our friends at PreventObesity.net so you can take action and make your voice heard.

Please join us in telling the USDA why it's so important to implement effective standards that ensure our kids have access to healthy, nutritious food throughout the school day.

Make your voice heard: Tell the USDA to improve school food now!  Plus: keep watching the HSC blog for more on healthier options for competitive foods.