Press Release

California Parents Support Strong School Nutrition Standards

Investment in kitchens would help schools serve the healthier meals that parents want

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Sacramento, CA—Three in 4 parents of school-age children in California support current national nutrition standards for food and drinks sold in schools, according to a poll released today by The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and The California Endowment. The standards are backed by large majorities of Republicans and Democrats and receive particularly strong support from Latino parents.

The statewide poll was conducted Sept. 23 to Oct. 1 and included interviews with 905 registered voters who are parents of public school students. Among the findings:

  • 76 percent of parents—and 86 percent of Latino parents—support the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s updated school meal nutrition standards, which were implemented in the 2012-13 school year.
  • 75 percent back USDA’s “Smart Snacks” standards. These guidelines took effect July 1 and set minimum nutrition requirements for foods and beverages sold through vending machines, school stores, and a la carte cafeteria menus.
  • 66 percent of Republicans and 87 percent of Democrats endorse the meal standards, and the Smart Snacks standards earn virtually the same level of bipartisan support (65 and 84 percent, respectively).
  • 77 percent say the main priority in school meal programs should be serving children healthy and nutritious food, while only 11 percent think it should be ensuring that schools do not lose money on these programs.
  • 93 percent agree that serving nutritious school foods help prepare children to perform academically.70 percent are concerned about childhood obesity. One in 3 children in California is overweight or obese. Research shows that children living in states with strong school nutrition standards are more likely to maintain healthier weights.

The poll findings come as The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and The California Endowment prepare to release a report showing that California schools need kitchen upgrades to provide meals that meet USDA’s nutrition guidelines. The report is based on survey responses from school food service directors or their designees in a representative sample of 238 school food authorities across the state.

The study, Serving Healthy School Meals in California, reveals school districts’ needs for kitchen equipment, infrastructure improvements, and/or additional training for food service workers to help them better prepare and serve healthy, appealing meals. For example, under USDA’s standards, schools must include a serving of fruits or vegetables with each child’s lunch—a requirement supported by 87 percent of California parents. But 41 percent of districts said that a lack of equipment, such as refrigerated storage space and machines to slice fruits and vegetables, made it difficult to increase the amount and variety of these foods.

“The right tools in the kitchen can make all the difference when it comes to serving healthy food in schools,” said Jessica Donze Black, director of the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project—a collaboration of The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “Something as simple as serving sliced rather than whole fruit can lead to kids eating more and throwing away less. But aging and poorly equipped kitchens prevent many schools from applying such practical solutions.”

Despite the equipment, infrastructure, and training challenges in California schools, the USDA certified that 95 percent are meeting the updated nutrition standards for student lunches as of March 2014.

“Schools in our state deserve a lot of credit for implementing the new school food standards, but more work needs to be done,” said Daniel Zingale, senior vice president of The California Endowment. “Too many students come to school hungry, and school meals make all the difference in getting these students the nutrition they need and deserve. If a student is hungry, they can’t concentrate and learn. The Endowment is going to continue working with partners like the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project to ensure students get the nutrition they need to succeed.”

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The Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project provides nonpartisan analysis and evidence-based recommendations on policies that impact the safety and healthfulness of school foods. The project is a collaboration between The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Learn more at www.healthyschoolfoodsnow.org.

The California Endowment, a private, statewide health foundation, was established in 1996 to expand access to quality health care for underserved individuals and communities, and to promote fundamental affordable improvements in the health status of all Californians. Learn more at www.calendow.org.