Americans Agree School Lunch Isn’t Broken (So, Congress, Don’t “Fix” It)

August 19, 2015 | 2:46 pm
Karen Perry Stillerman
Deputy Director

With a presidential campaign upon us, many Americans will no doubt soon tire of hearing about poll results. But this week brought news of an interesting national survey that has nothing to do with the current crowded field of presidential candidates, focusing instead on a closer-to-home topic: the quality of school lunches. The poll’s results? By large margins, Americans think school cafeterias serve better and healthier food than they did just five years ago, and almost unanimously agree that healthy school lunches are important to children’s future success.

IMG_2961Congress overhauled the legislation governing taxpayer-supported school meal programs in 2010 with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, and new requirements for meals served in the nation’s schools took effect starting in 2012. As I have written, food-industry backed voices soon began clamoring for these stricter rules to be weakened and their allies in Congress started trying to roll back those standards more than a year ago.

According to the national poll released this week by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation,* the public overwhelmingly disagrees with that strategy. More than two-thirds of the 1,200 randomly sampled adults surveyed said the nutritional quality of food served in public school cafeterias is “excellent or good.” Eighty-six percent of respondents said the current nutrition standards should stay the same or be strengthened. And a whopping 93 percent said it’s important for schools to serve nutritious foods to support children’s health and ensure that they are ready to learn and be successful. Interestingly, only 29 percent of the poll respondents are parents of school-age children. So this is not just an issue of parents looking out for their own kids.

Lessons from the lunchroom

Of course, these large majorities are absolutely right. As UCS analysis documented last February, school lunch programs are helping children eat healthier. In particular, stronger nutrition standards put into place since 2010 have significantly increased fruit and vegetable consumption at school.

And research shows that what kids eat early in life—for example, at school—can either set them on a healthful path or on a path to illness and misery. Obese children are 10 times more likely than their peers to become obese adults—and adult obesity has serious health consequences, including increased risk of type II diabetes, hypertension, and other chronic diseases. These impacts not only mean shorter and less fulfilling lives for millions of Americans; they also carry a heavy price tag in health care costs.

Improving on success

While the opponents of healthy school lunch rules have employed a variety of easily-refuted excuses, this poll makes clear that Americans aren’t buying it. And neither should Congress, which is set to take up legislation governing school meal programs when it returns from its August recess, just as the nation’s kids go back to school.

In related news, a new report by the Pew Charitable Trusts details the findings of another survey that provides a suggestion of how the quality of school food could be further improved. Pew’s survey of more than 3,300 school food service directors nationwide found that school nutrition staff say they need additional training to help them serve healthy meals to their students and run successful school meal programs.

This is a suggestion UCS can get behind…in fact, we already have! Instead of tearing down the school lunch program, our common-sense recommendations include giving the nation’s “lunch ladies” more tools, training, and dollars to build on the success they have already achieved. If school lunch legislation needs a “fix” at all, it’s this.

*Full disclosure: UCS receives funding from WKKF for our work on school lunch and other food and agriculture policy issues.