Re-envisioning School Food for Today’s Generation of Students

September 17, 2012

by Rochelle Davis, HSC President and CEO

This month, we’re seeing our nation’s school nutrition community take an important step in the process of re-envisioning school food. With the start of the new school year, schools across the country are implementing new USDA nutrition standards that reflect a movement to transform our nation’s school lunch program from one that supplies calories to a generation of under-nourished children to one that focuses on providing nutrient-rich meals for a generation of children facing high rates of obesity and related illnesses.

This is an important step in a larger movement that has been underway for more than a decade. It’s not perfect and not without challenges, but it’s an incredibly valuable step forward for kids’ health.

When the national school lunch program was created in 1945, it was seen in part as a measure of national security. Military leaders, concerned about the number of young men who were too malnourished for military service, called upon the nation to make sure that students received proper nutrition. This drive shaped many of the program’s details, such as the fact that school lunches were required to provide a minimum number of calories but had no upper limit on calories. The program was designed with the primary goal of making absolutely sure that students got enough to eat.

Today, we are facing a different set of challenges. Sixty-plus years after the school lunch program began, military leaders again urged schools to make changes to their food program out of concern for the number of young men and women who were facing serious health problems, this time as a result of overweight and obesity. The military leaders joined parents, educators, medical experts and others in calling for school meals to focus not on increasing children’s calorie intake but instead on providing healthy, nutrient-dense food that is lacking in many kids’ diets, foods such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

For the past decade, we’ve seen a shift in the way our country thinks about school food and we’ve seen an effort to answer the call for healthy changes. The USDA, the primary funder of school food, has been working to re-engineer its program from one that focuses on delivering calories to one that focuses on the type of nutrition that today’s generation of children needs.

This effort has been surrounded by activity from across sectors — we’ve seen the growth of the farm to school movement, a requirement for schools to develop wellness policies, even money for school kitchen facilities in the federal stimulus funding. More recently, we’ve seen programs like Food Corps, which engages recent college graduates in helping kids learn about healthy food with school gardens and nutrition education. First Lady Michelle Obama has brought great energy and attention to the issue with her Let’s Move initiative. And of course, schools across the country began making changes to transform their programs and focus on healthier school meals.

The 2010 reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, the bill that provides funding and sets policy for school food, brought federal changes that reflect the direction of this movement — including the new nutrition standards going into effect this month.

The bill required the USDA to update its nutrition standards for school food for the first time in fifteen years and tied an increase in funding (about six cents per meal) to these improvements. These updates are based in current nutrition science and in an understanding of the health needs of today’s generation of children. These are the standards that we’re seeing in action in schools this month.

What do the new standards look like? They bring a whole set of sensible healthy changes — providing more fruits and vegetables, making sure that more of the vegetables are the nutrient-rich dark green and orange type, serving more whole grains, adjusting portion sizes and, for the first time, setting a limit on the number of calories schools may include in one lunch. These new standards aren’t perfect, but they are an important and valuable step forward. The standards are part of our nation’s journey to re-envision school food that began more than a decade ago and will surely continue for years to come.

We’ve heard from school nutrition directors that the standards bring new challenges for reporting and that many are still working through implementation. Others report that the changes they have made over the last few years have positioned them well to put the new standards in action. Tight funding has for many years been a real problem for school food programs, and that continues to be the case.

Successfully changing a food program at the school level often means providing nutrition education so that students have a positive reaction to the changes. All of us — advocates, parents, school nutrition leaders — have a role to play in working through these challenges and helping make this new vision for school food a healthy reality for our nation’s children.