Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect a decision by a Senate committee to postpone a meeting on legislation to renew the Child Nutrition Act, which was originally scheduled for Sept. 17.
Nothing says “back-to-school season is here” like the annual flood of advice on what to pack for our children’s lunches. Yet these well-intended tips overlook an important reality: On a typical day, the majority of American students—more than 30 million kids—get their midday meals at school.
This year, cafeteria menus are healthier than ever, thanks to updated school nutrition standards issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2012 and the work of innovative nutrition professionals at the school level. A decade ago, fresh fruits and vegetables were not served daily in more than 40 percent of schools, and fewer than 5 percent of lunches had whole grain breads. Today, every school lunch includes a serving of fruits or vegetables, and whole grain-rich foods are the rule, not the exception. Nearly a third of schools offer self-serve salad bars.
The result of this progress is that students in almost all schools have healthier options every day. Before meal standards were updated, teenagers at larger high schools were more than three times as likely as their peers in smaller schools to have both fruit and vegetable options every day. Similarly, middle schools with predominantly white enrollments were more than twice as likely as racially and ethnically diverse schools to have fruits, vegetables, and whole grains available each day. Today, smaller and more diverse schools have increased their offerings of these nutritious items enough to close these gaps.
But progress isn’t just about serving healthier foods. Multiple studies have shown that children’s eating habits are changing for the better, too. Research published in March, for instance, measured what middle school students chose and ate before and after lunch standards were strengthened. The results: With healthier meals, more children chose and ate fruit and consumed more of their entrees and vegetables, increasing their nutrient intake and decreasing food waste.
Given these benefits, it is little surprise that voters with children in public schools want to preserve the policies driving this progress. More than 7 in 10 of these parents support the current school nutrition standards, according to a national poll released jointly by The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the American Heart Association in 2014.
But how to continue improving school nutrition is up for debate. Congress is evaluating the successes and challenges of the national school lunch and breakfast programs as it prepares to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act, which expires Sept. 30. This week, a Senate committee was scheduled to meet and mark up legislation to renew the law but postponed action until a later date.
The past record of achievement points to a clear course for Congress: Maintain the healthier food standards already implemented by nearly all schools and provide effective assistance to districts that encounter obstacles. The nation’s $16 billion annual investment in school meals is a crucial catalyst to help the next generation establish healthy habits for a lifetime. Spending these taxpayer dollars on nutritious meals remains a wise choice.
Continuing to provide schoolchildren with healthy food is not without its challenges, to be sure—in particular outdated kitchens and limited resources to train food service staff. When the updated meal standards took effect in 2012, Pew surveyed school meal program administrators nationwide and found that 88 percent of districts said they needed at least one new piece of kitchen equipment to serve healthier meals, such as ovens to cook baked potatoes instead of fries. Almost two-thirds reported staff training needs, but only 37 percent said they had the necessary funding to provide the training.
Ever since President Harry S. Truman signed the National School Lunch Act in 1946, our national leaders have invested in school meals, guided by the conviction—and ample evidence—that good nutrition is critical to healthy minds and bodies. Today’s leaders in Congress should build on recent progress to ensure that all children have access to the healthy food they need to learn—and succeed.
Jessica Donze Black directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ child nutrition project.