USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue was in Atlanta on July 12, giving a speech promoting his approach to freezing and rolling back school nutrition standards to the annual national conference of the School Nutrition Association (SNA), a nonprofit professional association for the school food service industry. The SNA publicly supports Perdue’s efforts, making them a friendly audience for the speech, which touched on some of the themes he brought up back in early May: that children don’t like healthier foods and that the restrictions are overly prescriptive and difficult for districts to meet. HSC has responded to these before.
Perdue also argued that food service providers were being “blamed” for childhood obesity and that school food guidelines are being used as an unfair punishment for a problem they didn’t cause. Obesity is a complicated issue with many causes, including highly processed foods at school and at home and lack of access to physical activity. HSC and its partners address obesity through improving student access to healthy school food and nutrition education and physical activity and school health services. But school meals, which are a primary source of food for many school children, simply cannot be taken out of the equation.
HSC and food service directors across the nation do not view school meal standards as a punishment. We have seen firsthand in our Cooking up Change program that student chefs are able to create delicious school meals, that their peers love, that are lower in sodium and incorporate whole grains. We have also seen major school systems, including Chicago Public Schools, make changes in their procurement policy and school meal standards that are building a long-term commitment to healthy school food. Districts across the country are already meeting and exceeding the sodium reduction and whole grain targets, and will continue to do so. Not because they have to, but because, as Bertrand Weber, director of culinary and wellness services for Minneapolis Public Schools put it, their work is simply to “provide our students with the quality food they deserve.”
Here’s one point on which we agree with Secretary Perdue: Hungry children cannot learn. We will continue to work to make sure that the solution includes providing children the healthiest food possible, and harnessing the power of school food to support student health.