Changes “Worth Celebrating” in School Meals (Spring 2012 Trust Magazine Article)

Author: Daniel LeDuc

05/25/2012 - When students return to school this fall, their lunch trays are going to look different. Most will still have slotted compartments that hark back to the TV dinners of old. But what is on those trays will be new.

There will be fewer nachos and more whole wheat spaghetti. Not as many cheeseburgers—instead, turkey sandwiches on multigrain rolls. Overall, a lot more fruit, colorful vegetables and whole grains, and a lot less saturated fat and salt.

The changes mark the first overhaul of nutrition standards for school meals in nearly two decades. And they come at a critical time for children’s health. Nearly one in three adolescents is overweight, and increasingly these young people are suffering from diabetes and high blood pressure. Because many children consume more than half their daily calories in school, improving meals there is a good place to start improving their health, according to nutritionists and many educators.

“These changes are good for students, and they give parents more assurance that schools support their efforts to provide healthy foods to their kids,” said Jessica Donze Black, director of the Kids’ Safe & Healthful Foods Project. “What’s more, healthy students tend to do better in school, and so that helps pave the way for a stronger economy through a better-prepared workforce and reduced health-care costs.”

The project—a  joint venture of the Pew Health Group and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation— collaborated with other health organizations to promote the new nutrition standards, which were announced in January.

But in many ways, the work is just beginning. The project is now focused on helping schools implement the guidelines and addressing another pressing need—new rules for the snacks and other foods sold in a la carte lines, vending machines and school stores. Those standards have not been reviewed in more than three decades.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees school meals programs, proposed the new nutrition standards for breakfasts and lunches in January 2011, the first update since 1995. They were in line with the government’s latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are evidence-based recommendations intended to promote health and reduce chronic illness and obesity. Nutritionists and health advocates were pleased.

But the path to passage was not smooth. Some members of Congress and some representatives of the food industry balked. The proposal would have limited many starchy vegetables—especially french fries—on school menus. Food makers also would have had to increase the amount of tomato paste on another cafeteria staple, pizza, for it to count as a vegetable.

To shore up support for the guidelines, Pew worked with its partners to educate the public, an effort that helped generate nearly 130,000 comments to the Agriculture Department, the vast majority in favor of the proposal. Those comments were among the largest number the agency had ever received on a single subject.

Some in Congress, however, had a different idea, and added a measure to the Agriculture Department funding bill in late 2011 that essentially ensured that the final school meal standards would count pizza and potatoes—including french fries—as vegetables. The notion of including pizza as a vegetable was an attention-getter. It was mocked by late-night comics from Saturday Night Live to The Colbert Report. But in the end, the pizza and potato restrictions were not included in the final guidelines because lawmakers from potato-producing states found them too restrictive and food-industry representatives convinced legislators that too much tomato paste could make pizzas unappetizing.

Nevertheless, when the new standards were finalized at the beginning of this year, New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman declared them “worth celebrating.”

“There were some bumps along the way, but the end result turned out really well,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which also worked to promote the new guidelines. “There are a lot of firsts in there: sodium limits, grain requirements, trans fats limits, a doubling of fruits and vegetables, a requirement for low-fat or fat-free milk.”

Also cheering the guidelines were many school food managers, like Sal Valenza, food service director for the schools in West New York, N.J. His urban district of 7,800 students just outside New York City is way ahead on giving kids healthy food choices.

“We’re doing it already,” he said. “It can be done.”

Six years ago, district officials there decided to emphasize food and health in the schools. They incorporated lesson plans with visits from area farmers, invited students into cafeteria kitchens, grew gardens at some schools and set up “harvest tables” during mealtimes where kids could take as many fruits and vegetables as they wanted.

“Now, it’s part of the culture of the school. Because students are choosing what they want, they’re eating it,” Valenza said.

Working with the Kids’ Safe & Healthful Foods Project, he helped promote the new standards to members of Congress last year. Valenza said Pew’s assistance— visits to Washington, briefings for lawmakers and the ability to help bring advocates to work in a unified way—was essential to the effort’s success.

During his visit to Capitol Hill, he handed out recipes and served a lunch of turkey sloppy joes and pineapple coleslaw to congressional staffers so they could sample how tasty healthy food can be. “People loved it,” Valenza said.

Public opinion has undergone a real change in the past five years, with support growing for healthier foods in society.

In 2011, a poll commissioned by the project found that 78 percent of voters said schools should be required to meet higher nutritional standards in the food they serve or sell to students.

Public support for making school meals healthier helped win passage of the standards.

Now the project is embarking on efforts to assist schools with putting them into practice. Over the next year, Pew and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation are funding a nationally representative survey to determine the practical necessities, such as new kitchen equipment, that cafeterias will need.

The project also is gearing up to promote improved standards for school snack foods to bring them up to date with current dietary guidelines. Again, there is strong public support:  A project-sponsored national survey this spring found that 80 percent of voters supported new rules setting basic nutritional standards for foods in cafeteria a la carte lines and vending machines, which were last updated in 1979. There was agreement across the political spectrum, with 89 percent of Democrats, 78 percent of independents and 71 percent of Republicans favoring new guidelines.

“It’s important to remember that this isn’t about taking away choices from students—it’s about giving them healthy choices,” Donze Black said. “Schools should give choices parents would want. All parents want their kids to be healthy.”


Daniel LeDuc is the editor of Trust.

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