Schools Are Making Healthier School Food Happen

  • January 10, 2017
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Although the debate about healthy school food is still taking place in Washington, D.C.,—with no end in sight—school food service directors across the country are implementing the nutrition standards outlined in 2010’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. And that means healthier food for more students.

Last month, the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project, a collaboration between the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, released the School Meal Programs Innovate to Improve Student Nutrition report. This report highlights ways school food service directors are encouraging students to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables.

Despite challenges, schools are making it happen. Ninety percent of food service directors have adopted at least one practice to raise children’s fruit and vegetable consumption, and 84 percent of program directors reported rising or stable revenue in the past year.

A few other key findings:

  • 54 percent of districts saw higher revenue in school year 2014-2015 compared with a year earlier.
  • 60 percent of school food service directors said they faced few or no ongoing obstacles to meeting updated breakfast requirements; 40 percent said the same about the lunch guidelines.
  • Almost two-thirds of directors who increased the use of salad bars said that kids ate more produce as a result.
  • Respondents said that holding taste tests with students and redistributing uneaten, sealed foods were among the most effective ways to reduce waste, but only 44 percent and 38 percent of programs, respectively, used these strategies.
  • Directors whose programs prepared more foods from scratch and increased the use of salad bars were more likely to report increased or unchanged participation; directors who purchased more prepared foods or decreased menu options were more likely to see a decrease in participation.
  • For breakfast and lunch, the most commonly cited challenges were tighter limits on weekly average sodium content and a requirement that any food counted as a grain serving be made from at least 50 percent whole grains.
  • Equipment and labor costs were the most frequently reported financial concerns

The report contains great data and great tips and tricks from districts that are making healthier school food happen. For example, it shares ways for the community, school staff, teachers, parents and students to promote healthy eating and reduce waste. Sometimes it’s as simple as making sure there are two staff members on both sides of the salad bar to encourage students, like Rodney Taylor, director of food and nutrition services at Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia does. These experiences prove that serving healthier food ins schools is not only possible—it’s already happening.

Showing that healthier school food is possible is a key element of our Cooking up Change program. Cooking up Change challenges high school culinary students to create healthy, great-tasting meals that meet the real-life requirements of the national school meal program. Cooking up Change serves up life-changing opportunities, helps students realize their own potential and puts student voices front and center in the national dialogue about school food. Healthy Schools Campaign launched Cooking up Change in Chicago, and more than 1,800 students from 20 cities have participated in local contests since the program started in 2007.