Five years ago, on December 13, 2010, a bipartisan Congress passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA)—which brought nutrition standards for schools into accord with federal dietary guidelines.
Currently, school nutrition standards require schools to serve “whole grain-rich” grains (at least 50 percent whole grain), lower-fat milk, and one-half cup of fruits and vegetables with every federally funded meal. The standards extend to all foods sold and eaten at school, including snacks sold in vending machines.
The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act paved the way for many of our schools to overhaul school lunch. Food service directors were looking for assistance to meet the new federal guidelines, and this opened up an avenue to increase the procurement of local fruits and vegetables. But, more importantly, it got people talking about what kids are eating. Lunch trays were no longer filled with mindless, empty calories—now they are a smorgasbord of colorful fruits and vegetables.
Earlier this year, UCS released the report Lessons from the Lunchroom: Childhood Obesity, School Lunch, and the Way to a Healthier Future, which documented the importance of healthy school food, and how it can improve kids’ eating habits. In our report, we also featured the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative, an organization that received funding from the USDA’s Farm to School grant program authorized under HHFKA. The grant supports the school’s efforts to collaborate with local farmers and educate kids about healthy eating habits and the origins of their food. Recently I asked Emily Neal, School Outreach Coordinator for the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative how HHFKA has helped her program and the communities they serve. Here’s what she said:
“The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act paved the way for many of our schools to overhaul school lunch. Food service directors were looking for assistance to meet the new federal guidelines, and this opened up an avenue to increase the procurement of local fruits and vegetables. But, more importantly it got people talking about what kids are eating. Lunch trays were no longer filled with mindless, empty calories – now they are a smorgasbord of colorful fruits and vegetables.”
Emily Neal isn’t the only one seeing improvements in the quality of kids’ meals. National studies have shown that since the implementation of HHFKA, schools are offering healthier lunch and snack items—and kids are eating them! A Harvard School of Public Health study revealed that kids are selecting 23% more fruits and consuming 16% more vegetables. Additionally, a study from The Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity found that kids are also throwing away less food.
What do improved nutrition standards in schools mean for public health? Reduced childhood obesity rates! According to a study in JAMA Pediatrics, schools with stronger school nutrition standards had lower childhood obesity rates than schools with weaker standards (21 percent compared to 26 percent). Taxpayers should take note since the lifetime healthcare costs for obese children are approximately $19,000 more than healthy weight children – this adds up to $14 billion in lifetime healthcare costs.
The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act is doing exactly what it was supposed to do: improve the nutritional quality of school foods. Even better, strong nutrition standards are one strategy to reduce childhood obesity rates that saves more than it costs. Last September, Congress failed to renew HHFKA’s commitment to healthy school food standards through the Child Nutrition Act. To help make sure we keep up the progress, send them a letter today!