Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods: Why School Meals Matter

The Problem

Access to safe and healthy foods is essential to protecting and promoting health.  Consider that, over the past four decades, childhood obesity rates in the United States have risen rapidly, more than quadrupling among children ages 6 to 11 and more than tripling among teens. Today, more than 23 million adolescents and children in the United States—nearly one in three young people—are either obese or overweight, placing them at increased risk for serious diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer and stroke. In addition, roughly half of reported foodborne illnesses occur in children, and outbreaks have sickened tens of thousands of students and staff in schools over the past four decades.

The National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs provide meals to tens of millions of children each day, accounting for up to one-half of those students' daily calories. As a result, schools have a unique opportunity to play a crucial role in supporting the health of our nation's children.

Based upon the recent findings that many children have nutritionally poor diets, the Institute of Medicine (the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences), the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have issued recommendations that schools should offer more fruits, vegetables and whole grains while also reducing saturated fat, trans fat, calories and salt.

The Opportunity

In 2010, Congress and the President took a vital step toward safeguarding and improving children's health by enacting the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. This law calls for important changes, including increased funding to improve school meals, national directives to update nutrition standards for all foods served and sold in schools, and guidance to make school foods safer. While these are moves in the right direction, we must continue to help schools secure the resources they need to implement rigorous nutrition and safety standards.

The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation are working together on the Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods Project to provide nonpartisan analysis and evidence-based recommendations to help ensure that:

  • USDA adopts science-based nutrition standards for all foods and beverages served and sold in schools;
  • Schools have the resources they need to train cafeteria employees and replace outdated and broken kitchen equipment; and
  • USDA develops and implements rigorous school food safety policies.

Kids deserve safe, healthy meals to help them grow, learn and succeed. Together we can help school foods make the grade.

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