Analysis

Check out the success stories at these four school districts!

Consider this: school meals can be healthy, affordable and appealing to kids. Hard to believe? Districts across the United States are proving it can be done.

Check out the success stories at these four school districts!

Schools face many challenges in their mission to serve healthy food to students, including budget constraints, equipment and training limitations, and notoriously picky consumers. However, considering that nearly one in three American children and adolescents is overweight or obese and at increased risk for long-term health problems, it is vital that schools overcome those challenges. Because our nation's schools provide meals to more than 31 million children each day, they can play a crucial role in supporting children's health.

Schools participating in the Healthier US School Challenge (HUSSC) are leading the way when it comes to including healthier options on their cafeteria menus. Established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2004, HUSSC is a voluntary initiative that recognizes schools participating in the National School Lunch Program that have promoted healthy lifestyles through nutrition and exercise. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, schools in every state across the country are finding innovative ways to make incremental changes and provide students with affordable, healthy meals they will actually eat. Examples of successful approaches include consolidating food preparation into central kitchens, making the process less expensive and more efficient; incorporating nutritious, low-cost ingredients into lunch menus; increasing revenues by boosting student participation at breakfast and lunch; and adding a greater variety of fresh fruits and vegetables with supportive grant funding.

Since the Challenge began, it has recognized more than 1,600 schools in 44 states and the District of Columbia. At a minimum, recognized schools must offer students:

  • a different vegetable every day of the week, including nutrient-rich dark green or orange vegetables three or more days per week and high-fiber cooked dry beans or peas once per week;
  • a different fruit each day, with 100 percent fruit juice allowed only once per week; and
  • a serving of whole grains at least three days per week.

Schools are joining HUSSC at a steady pace, and the initiative has already achieved its goal of certifying 1,250 schools by the end of the 2010–2011 school year. Each has a unique story to share that can show other schools how to make changes of their own.

Spreading Success Across the United States

The time is ripe for schools across the country to take up the challenge of offering healthier meals. USDA recently proposed updates to school meal standards, bringing them in line with the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the 2009 recommendations from the Institute of Medicine. The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 also calls for considerable improvements to all foods and beverages served and sold in schools, and authorizes the most significant funding increase for school meals in over 30 years.

Schools face a number of barriers in their efforts to provide students with healthy meals, including limited budgets, outdated or insufficient kitchen equipment, and the need for increased staff training on healthy preparation and cooking methods. The four districts discussed above represent the commitment of school food service professionals to improving their meal programs; but they cannot do it alone. Many schools need additional support and technical assistance to overcome hurdles and implement sustainable changes such that all students have access to safe and healthy meals.

Check out USDA's interactive map to see if your school has been recognized.