School lunch program findings indicate success

Harvard study suggests the new school lunch program is doing its job

MANHATTAN, Kan. – A waiver could allow some schools to opt out of increased nutrition standards for the upcoming school year. Proposal of the waiver prompted first lady Michelle Obama to generate an appeal and led to the development a U.S. Department of Agriculture fact sheet (http://www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/NSLPFactSheet.pdf) outlining the benefits of the new nutrition standards.

The waiver, now working its way across the country from Washington, D.C., would direct the USDA to create a process that allows schools to opt out of the heightened meal standards contained in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (http://www.fns.usda.gov/school-meals/healthy-hunger-free-kids-act), if the schools can demonstrate a net loss from operating a food service program for a period of at least six months.

A recent Harvard School of Public Health study (http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/press-releases/school-meal-standards-increase-fruit-and-vegetable-consumption/) revealed that new nutrition standards for school lunches are meeting or exceeding many of the intended goals, including increasing students’ consumption of fruits and vegetables, said Sandy Procter, a registered dietitian and nutrition specialist for K-State Research and Extension.

“It’s taken a long time to see where we’re at and how these changes are taking effect,” Procter said. “As they’ve rolled in, probably the No. 1 change we’re seeing is that kids actually are eating more fruits and vegetables as a result of these updated standards.”

Procter said the Harvard study, cited in the USDA fact sheet, indicates students are eating about 16 percent more vegetables and 23 percent more fruits for lunch.

“If we’re supposed to be eating five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day, 16 to 23 percent is one to two more servings a day,” she said. “If you’re looking at epidemiological or public health changes, that’s a big one.”

Implementing these changes at the child level could help create lifetime changes, Procter said. Many of the standards are moving into other USDA meal programs, including the Summer Food Service Program (http://www.fns.usda.gov/sfsp/summer-food-service-program-sfsp), to provide at least one healthy meal a day to hungry kids during the summer.

Despite concern that the changes would be too big of a jump for successful implementation of the program, Procter said the data shows that more than 90 percent of schools report they’re successfully meeting the new standards.

The new meals are designed to include more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, leaner protein sources, low-fat dairy, and lower sugar and sodium content.

“The whole point of these changes was to help kids’ meals line up with the dietary guidelines and the My Plate recommendations that the rest of the country has been asked to follow for good health,” Procter said. “We just want to make sure that the lunches we offer our children are equally healthy.”

The Harvard study showed the new meal standards have not increased food waste, and school staff members are focused on providing meals that are acceptable to kids.

Recently, Procter said competition from fast food and revenue sources outside the USDA Type A lunch (http://www.fns.usda.gov/nslp/history_5), which is designed to meet one-third to one-half of the minimum daily nutritional requirements of a child 10 to 12 years of age, has made it difficult for schools to continue serving school lunches. However, both students and their parents are hopping on board with the changes, as they are shown to be truly healthier.

“People want healthier meals for their kids, and participation is increasing across the country,” she said.

Participation appears to be particularly increasing in urban areas, Procter said. While still in its early stages, signs are good for the program.

There was concern that schools would be unable or unwilling to participate in the programs, she said. According to the data, only about one-tenth of a percent of schools report dropping out of the program, with most of those being residential childcare institutions and smaller schools with low percentages of children eligible for free and reduced meals. For the most part, the changes have helped increase the quality and acceptance of school meals across the country.

The healthy guidelines are opening up opportunities for schools and expanding their meal choices, Procter said: “It’s not like these changes were forced on an unwilling set of employees. You work in school lunch, because you have a real love for food and a real love for your audience – the kids. To have a product that’s well-accepted, tastes good and is healthy for kids is a win-win.”

As Congress attempts to roll back some of these new standards, she said some involved in the armed services are speaking up in favor of the changes.

“Some of the people who are giving testimonies and talking about this are people from the armed services saying that our future soldiers have not been as fit as they were in years past, and it’s time for the foods offered in our schools to be healthier so our student body is healthier,” Procter said.

While reliable results likely won’t surface for another four to five years, she said the new program encourages schools to think of new ways to season food rather than just adding salt or sugar.

“I think some of the decisions that parents make in their own home about preparing meals are now being reflected in schools,” she said. “There’s funding being provided not only for improved kinds of foods but also for equipment to make foods healthier.”

Changes might include more oven space for baked products and steamers for vegetables.

“There’s been a lot of thought and care put into the support of how these changes are going to come about, including training for staff,” Procter said.

For more information about nutrition standards for school meals, visit the USDA’s website at http://www.fns.usda.gov/school-meals/nutrition-standards-school-meals.

Story by Shelby Alyssa Mettlen, [email protected], K-State Research & Extension


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