National School Lunch Program: Glass Half Empty or Half Full?

, food systems & health analyst | March 19, 2015, 5:44 pm EDT
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A March 13 article in U.S. News & World Report on the federal school nutrition standards barely gets a passing grade. Beyond misinterpreting the law, the article offers a narrow, glass-half-empty perspective for readers. For an increasingly politicized debate involving our nation’s children, it’s necessary to look at all the evidence.

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First, the federal school nutrition standards require students to select 1/2 cup minimum of fruits and vegetables. Contrary to the statement that fruits and vegetables have to be fresh, they can also be frozen, canned, or in the form of 100% fruit juice. Additionally, all grains must be “whole grain-rich” (at least 50 percent whole grain). This requirement extends to all foods sold in school, including snacks. For these foods, as long as they’re whole grain-rich or the first ingredient is whole grain, fruits, vegetables, or dairy, schools can sell them. This is how reformulated Doritos® and Pop-Tarts® are approved Smart Snacks. Given all this, can we really suggest that updated nutrition standards are too strict?

New research continues to provide insight on the effectiveness of the updated standards. A recent study from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity shows kids are eating more school food and throwing away less, but the U.S. News & World Report’s article and the School Nutrition Association (SNA) have questioned these findings. Citing the study’s sample size (12 schools in one school district) as a limitation, SNA counters with another scholarly article. While the Rudd Center study had its own limitations, we should also examine the other study’s limitations.

Researchers at Cornell and Brigham Young University compared plate waste (i.e., the food children throw away) among schools that required students to take a fruit or vegetable versus those that did not. Across 18 schools in two districts, researchers found that requiring kids to take a fruit or vegetable resulted in higher consumption and plate waste. Published in 2011 (pre-updated nutrition standards) the authors note that because the study focused on fruit and vegetables only it would be hard to speculate how the standards would impact plate waste. Additionally, researchers observed plate waste during one school year, instead of multiple years like the Rudd Center study.

Changing tastes takes time (and money)

In study design, it’s extremely important to consider how long an intervention (in this case children’s consumption of healthier school foods) is expected to take before change occurs. In terms of diet, we know that kids’ eating habits start young and can last a lifetime. Only with repeated exposure and simultaneous education about healthier foods will children begin to change their eating behaviors. Teaching a child how to read doesn’t happen overnight—so why would we hold schools to a different standard when it comes to healthy food? Rolling back school nutrition standards without giving them a chance to see if they work would be a short-sighted policy decision.

The U.S. News & World Report article talks about schools’ financial struggles to implement the updated standards. However, more than 90% of schools have reported successfully meeting the standards. Still, some schools are having difficulties, and most could use additional resources to serve the best possible meals. Recognizing the challenges that many Americans have known for years—cooking fresh meals requires time and resources—the USDA has offered multiple opportunities for schools to receive assistance, including over $30 million in grants this year to assist schools with preparing fresh foods. UCS applauds that action and further recommends increasing the federal reimbursement rate to help assist schools with preparing fresh, healthy meals. SNA also calls for increased reimbursement rates, but with decreased responsibility in the form of “flexibility” to ignore the standards for fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and sodium.

Children consume at least half of their daily calories during school meals—and for lower-income kids, this may be their only real meal of the day. With 30 percent of today’s children overweight or obese, tomorrow’s obesity-related healthcare costs are expected to triple—from $210 billion in 2010 to $550 billion by 2030. In a recent poll, more than 70% of parents say they favor the updated school nutrition standards and 90% agree that schools should be required to serve fruits and vegetables. And with stakes this high, why wouldn’t they?

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