School Nutrition Standards: Where are We Now?

On July 1, 2012, schools and programs that utilize the National School Lunch program began the process of adopting the changes required under the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFKA). Though challenging to implement, the strong need for better nutrition for the over 30 million children who rely on the National School Lunch program and the opportunity for greater reimbursement per meal (an extra 6 cents), encouraged schools to comply. The transformation to come was so monumental and innovative for a program that hadn’t seen change in fifteen years, that Guiding Stars devoted a webinar on the topic. Now, two years later, we can see how the changes are being implemented and where we are on our journey toward feeding the next generation.

School lunch tray

With the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) as a guiding force, food service establishments began to change the milk offered, making it all skim or low fat (non-fat flavored milk), offering complementary water and requiring fruits and vegetables with every meal, including dark greens and other nutrient-rich produce. Calories have been reduced based on age group, Trans fats eliminated and grants made available to encourage engagement with local farms to bring schools into the farm to fork movement. Lastly, the new regulations have stretched to bake sales and more, by requiring all foods and beverages sold during the school day to support a “healthy” diet as defined by the DGA.

This school year brought the need for all foods (from breading on chicken tenders to pizza crust) to be whole grain as well as the first changes to sodium levels. Coming on the heels of studies that show our youth are consuming too much salt, beginning to reduce sodium in school foods is critically important. Of course, it is worth noting that this is probably one of the most challenging modifications for food service establishments, which is why the regulation will come in 3 phases (concluding in the 2022-2023 school year… yes, a long time from now). When sodium levels are finally at their lowest, they will be about 50% of what they are today.

The question is of course…how are we doing? I mean really doing? To look for the answer to this essential question I first turned to the latest statistics from the USDA on the number of lunches served. According to the USDA over 30 million lunches were served in 2013 with approximately 70% being free and reduced. This is a slight decrease since 2011 and 2012, which had closer to 32 million sold (though the percentage of free/reduced has increased). Are fewer kids buying school lunch because of taste, price or quality? Or are more care givers sending kids in with lunch to avoid buying it all together?

Many are looking at these questions as we continue on our journey toward transforming school lunch. Last spring, the National School Association called for a waiver, which would allow some schools to take a break from further implementing the new standards. Citing increased plate waste and unmanageable cost, the waiver gained support among some government leaders and led First Lady Michelle Obama to speak up on behalf HHFKA. Despite findings from the Harvard School for Public Health, which showed that there hasn’t been an increase in plate waste (per student) and that in fact fruit and vegetable consumption has increased, opponents are still pushing for more flexibility in how these changes are implemented. Just this month, the National School Board Association (NSBA) reported a survey of school districts, which found that 83.7% are seeing an increase in plate waste, 81.8% an increase in cost, and 76.5% a decrease in participation by students.

No doubt this will be interesting space to watch. At the end of the day, the most important thing is that our children are provided with the nutrition they need….even if change comes slowly.