More Federal Investment in School Kitchens Would Benefit Student Health

Next child nutrition bill should build on Senate Agriculture Committee’s bipartisan proposal

Cafeteria staff

School nutrition professionals, like these cafeteria workers at Sherwood High School in Montgomery County, Maryland, have achieved significant success with healthier meals and snacks, and Congress has an opportunity to further that momentum by helping schools modernize outdated kitchens and cafeterias.

© The Pew Charitable Trusts

As a new Congress goes to work, lawmakers have a chance to support children’s well-being by reauthorizing the nation’s school nutrition programs, which serve meals and snacks to millions of kids each day. Students’ healthy food and drink choices have expanded greatly over the past few years, and legislators can ensure continued success for these programs by maintaining science-based nutrition standards and providing resources to help schools upgrade their kitchens.

First authorized in 1946, federally funded school meal programs get reviewed and renewed by Congress about every five years. House and Senate committees approved separate reauthorization bills in 2016, but members were unable to agree on final legislation before the 114th Congress ended Jan. 3. As a result, the last law—the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010—remains in effect.

With the act, Congress laid important groundwork—including increased per-lunch reimbursements to schools—for the healthier meals and snacks enjoyed by the nation’s students today, and together with the constructive work done toward a reauthorization bill last year, lawmakers have a solid foundation on which to build new legislation for consideration in the 115th Congress. A bipartisan proposal approved unanimously by the Senate Agriculture Committee in 2016 called for preserving science-based meal requirements that ensure each school lunch includes a serving of fruits or vegetables and offers the energy and range of nutrients kids need to grow up healthy. Like the bill approved by the House Education and the Workforce Committee, the Senate panel’s measure would have authorized federal grants and low-interest loans to help districts buy ovens, freezers, and other equipment that make nutritious fresh foods easier to prepare and serve.

Research by the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project, a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts, shows that kitchen infrastructure investments have improved menu quality and student convenience across the country. However, in 2012 almost 9 in 10 districts needed at least one new piece of equipment to efficiently serve healthy meals, and only 4 in 10 had a budget for these purchases. When the project surveyed school nutrition directors in 2015, the largest share—38 percent—said equipment costs topped their lists of financial concerns. By comparison, food costs were the leading concern for just 2 percent of directors.

Families count on these programs to provide the nourishment kids need to thrive in school and life. Congress’ next reauthorization law should continue to help districts revamp outdated kitchens so that nutrition staff can focus more time and resources on the healthy, appealing choices all students deserve.

Stephanie Scarmo leads The Pew Charitable Trusts’ research on school nutrition programs and policies.

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