school lunch programGuess what? When schools improve meals – positive results follow.

Despite the negative press from a few anti-nutrition Tea-Party types, the new school nutrition standards are beginning to have an impact. Just refer to the recently published U.S. Department of Agriculture report showing that, in just one year since more stringent school nutrition standards were introduced, more than 80 percent of schools are now offering healthier meals and are in full compliance with the regulations. Many states have 100 percent compliance, and less than 2 percent opted out of the program nationwide.

These are impressive numbers, especially considering the cost of fresh produce for some school districts.

 

Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act

As you probably know, the National School Lunch Program reimburses or subsidizes schools for the food they serve to the millions of students across the country each day. In order to qualify under the program, schools must follow the nutritional standards set forth by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA). Part of these new guidelines include the requirement for more fresh fruits and vegetables in school meals. When the program was first implemented at the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year there was backlash from conservative groups and some parents who complained that kids were still hungry. However, in the year that the program has been in place, those complaints have mostly disappeared.

Yes, the new standards do limit calories and lower sodium levels, so some students who were accustomed to large plates of greasy fries had to adjust. On the other hand, the new standards also allow students to have as many fruits and vegetables as they want. That’s right- they can ask for more, which pretty much ends the argument that kids are still “hungry” after lunch. (Hungry for processed cheese covered, greasy nachos perhaps, but not real food).

While it is true, some school districts did opt out of the HHFKA, the reasons they did might surprise you. According to Kevin Concannon, secretary of food, nutrition and consumer services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “There are 100,000 American schools that are part of the program, and about 540 schools that dropped out of the program; less than half cited the new requirements as the reason.”

 

improved school lunch healthy hunger free kids actImproved Quality 

In light of the success of the program, it appears that all that fuss last year was much ado about nothing. Schools are reporting that they no longer receive emails or phone calls complaining about all the vegetables on the lunch line, and many districts are beginning to see an INCREASE in lunch revenue as students find they are enjoying the improved quality of the new menu options.

 

Next: Ala carte and Vending Machines

Of particular interest to me is the next stage of the program where the ala carte menu and vending machines will be required to meet standards too. This means complying with a “smart snack” policy that limits sugar and sodium for all those “extra” items that are not part of the school lunch program. These items are a cash cow for many schools so there will certainly be some reluctancy to comply. But, in the end, demanding our schools provide a happy and HEALTHY environment for our children is not a “crazy, food Nazi” idea – it is a smart one.

Who would’ve thought that making school meals healthier would receive so much pushback? In our sugar and fat, “Double Down” chicken burger obsessed society, what’s wrong with a little attempt to provide healthier meals to children during the school day? You are still free to load them up with donuts at home, you know, on your own time and dime.

School should be the place to expand your mind, not your waistline, or worse – your chance of heart attack, stroke and early death, so I am hopeful that the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act will continue to make strides.