Opinion

The State of School Nutrition

Kids consume up to 50 percent of their daily calories at school, so access to healthy meals and snacks is important to their overall health. This is especially true for the 21.5 million students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals and rely on food served in school to meet their nutritional needs.

The past few years have brought exciting improvements to the school food environment nationwide, and there will be major opportunities to build on this progress in 2014. One of the great recent achievements is that the vast majority of schools (86 percent) are serving healthy lunches that meet nutrition standards. This means that in most schools, students are receiving more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains with their meals.

In addition, schools this fall will implement “Smart Snacks” standards for foods and beverages sold outside the school meal programs. These guidelines will ensure that snacks in vending machines, school stores, a la carte lines, and snack bars are healthy. Nutritious snacks in schools not only are good for students' diets; research shows they also can increase food service revenue.

Nutrition standards are important, but schools also need the resources to implement them. A series of reports by the Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods Project finds that updates to school kitchens could help districts serve nutritious and appealing meals in more cost-effective ways. Recently, the federal government has taken steps to ensure that schools have the tools needed to better serve healthy foods:

  • In early January, Congress passed a budget for fiscal year 2014 that includes $25 million for schools to purchase kitchen equipment.
  • In December, USDA announced the distribution of funds that Congress appropriated for school food service equipment in the fiscal 2013 budget.
  • The bipartisan School Food Modernization Act would establish a loan and grant assistance program within USDA to help pay for upgrades to school kitchens and dining areas, new equipment, and training and technical assistance for school food service personnel.

This year, let's continue to create a healthy environment for children. We should encourage schools to offer only nutritious options to students and to work with the community to ensure that their kitchens are well-equipped to do so. Follow me on Twitter (@JDonzeBlack_Pew) for the latest updates and information on how you can get involved.