Improving Kids Eating Habits May Take Time, but Healthy School Meals are Critical

Education
Nutrition

Over the last decade, many local and federal officials have worked to make the food served to our children in schools healthier so that all children have access to a nutritious meal. This has been crucial given our country’s ongoing mission to curb rising childhood obesity rates, as well as efforts that are being made to end child hunger. And with a significant amount being invested in these important programs, it is good fiscal policy to spend tax dollars wisely in order to make our children healthy.

In 2010, during the last child nutrition reauthorization, Congress recognized the challenges of child hunger and obesity and the importance of spending federal dollars wisely. A bipartisan group of Members of Congress came together and passed the much needed updates to the school meals programs through the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA). School meals already had standards, but this law directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to use the most up to date science and research to align the standards with what we know a child’s nutritional needs are.

This week, new information was released regarding school children and the healthy improvements that have been made to the school meals programs over the last couple of years. New school meal standards went into effect in the 2012-2013 school year. The updates aimed to increase children’s consumption of items with more whole wheat, fruits, and vegetables, and curb children’s consumption of sugars, fats, and sodium. While most parents know that attempting to get your children to eat healthy food takes patience (and creativity), studies by Bridging the Gap reiterated that at first student may complain of new food items, but over time they do not. Specifically, Bridging the Gap found that while some children complained initially when healthy food was introduced in school, those complaints were not as often heard as the school year went on, according to school officials. In addition, students in urban and suburban areas complained less and schools saw less of a change than their rural counterparts when it came to participation in the meals program or children not eating what they were served. This is important information as school officials and the USDA look to continue to work with schools in the upcoming school year on the healthy updates to the meals program and look at where technical assistance should be targeted.

While many of the healthy items have been added to schools already, some requirements will be phased in over the next few years (final lower sodium requirements go as far out as the 2022-2023 school year). This system gives schools to change suppliers and food manufacturers time to reformulate products.

Another improvement that will take place this upcoming school year is the adoption of Smart Snacks in School. This will not only increase the availability of healthier items for kids, but it will also help to make sure that kids have an easier time making healthy choices as the healthy items won’t have to compete with less nutritious food. Anyone who has made the healthy choice to have an apple as a snack, rather than a candy bar can relate.

While many kids, schools, and parents support the healthier meal options, there has been a small, but loud minority that either don’t support the healthy measures or are having difficulty implementing the updates. This led some in Congress to propose rolling back the updated standards that are so important to children. Members of Congress who are supporting measures to roll back healthy eating are reacting to a minority of schools who are having problems adjusting to the new standards. Making sure that all schools have the ability to serve healthy food will take time. And as the recent studies showed, getting kids to be more open and accepting of healthy options may take time as well.

USDA has recognized challenges that schools have encountered and made adjustments, and will continue to do so in order to better help schools serve healthy food. It is imperative that all stakeholders work together towards the shared goal of serving healthy meals to kids and not delay important standards from moving forward. A healthy childhood with access to nutritious food is just as important for children as it is for kids to learn to read and write. When children face challenges in reading or math, teachers and parents don’t give up, they find new and creative ways for kids to learn and further their education. Kids learning healthy eating habits in school should be no different.