It is the time of year that a majority of kids go to back to school. Children look forward to returning to school, activities, and catching up with friends. Teachers prepare new lesson plans and kids will return to learn new math and reading skills. It is also a time where kids return to the school lunchroom. Some kids will get access to nutritious meals that they may have missed over the summer and once again this year all children will return to a healthier school food environment.

Meals that children receive in school are an important part of a child’s education. Over 31 million children receive a lunch and over 13 million children receive a school breakfast at school every day. School meals help children get the fuel and nutrients that they need to learn and grow which helps prepare them for a healthy and productive adulthood.

When schools participate in federal school meal programs, the school is reimbursed by the federal government for every meal that meets the standards and is served to kids. A reimbursement takes place whether the family has paid full price for the meal or a low-income child has received a free meal. This is an important investment that the federal government makes in local schools so that all children, no matter where they live, get access to school meals.

Over the last decade many local and federal officials have worked to make the food served to our children in school healthier so that all children not only have access to food, but healthy food as well. This has been crucial given our country’s ongoing mission to curb rising childhood obesity rates, as well as end childhood hunger, especially during economic downturns. In addition, $16 billion dollars are spent by the federal government on school meal programs, so it is good fiscal policy to spend these 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 updates to the school meals programs through the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA). School meals had previously had standards, but this law directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to use the most up to date science and research to make these standards more current with what is needed for a child’s daily nutrition today.

Over the last 20 years, the nutritional quality of school meals had been improving is some parts of the country. The majority of schools were offering breakfasts and lunches that meet the standards for key nutrients, such as vitamins A and C, calcium, protein, and iron. However, many school meals were too high in saturated fat and sodium and too few children were choosing meals with enough fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. The HHFKA provided significant resources and opportunities for schools to continue to improve the nutritional quality of the meals that they serve. HHFKA required USDA to update the school meal program standards to be consistent with current nutritional science and provided an additional 6 cents per lunch to schools that meet these updated nutritional standards. This historic investment is the first reimbursement rate increase, over inflation, in more than 30 years and helps schools serve meals that meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Over 90% of schools are currently meeting the new standards and are receiving the additional reimbursement for doing so. This year the standards will continue to improve and more fruits, vegetables, and whole grain-rich items will be served. In addition schools will be meeting lower sodium standards in the meals that they serve.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 also created a new option for schools that will go into affect nation-wide this school year that is known as the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). This provision is offered through the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs. CEP is a voluntary program at the district level that allows schools in high poverty areas to forgo the administrative hassles of collecting meal program applications and instead schools can focus on the nutrition needs of students by providing breakfast and lunches at no charge to all students. CEP helps ensure that low-income children have access to healthy meals and cuts down on administrative costs for schools districts. Many studies have shown that when children eat meals at schools they have less absenteeism and better test scores.

Prior to recent HHFKA updates, standards for foods sold at school, but not included in the meal programs (including vending and al carte) were 30 years out of date and did not reflect current nutrition science or address concerns about children’s diets. HHFKA allowed USDA to update the nutrition standards for all food items sold in schools, during the school day. These updates, Smart Snacks in Schools, will be implemented this school year (2014-2015). Strong nutrition standards in schools will support nutrition and health education for children, and parents’ ability to help their children eat healthfully, when they aren’t present.

These items are just some of the recent updates and improvements to the school food environment. What is great about these updates is that they will help all kids no matter what socioeconomic background they come from. Whether a child is plagued with obesity, hunger, or poor nutrition the updates to the school food and wellness programs will give all children equal access to a healthy environment. This is important for all kids, but especially for low-income children. Low-income children often times don’t have a choice as to whether they eat a school meal or not, as there family may not be able to afford to send them to school with a lunch.

Our country should make sure that all children gain access to healthy meals when they receive a meal at school. Unfortunately, with one in five children coming from a family that is food insecure, the school meal may be the only meal (or for many kids, the only healthy meal) that they receive each day. We owe it to all of our children to make sure that they are provided with healthy options at school and luckily this year schools will continue to build upon recent improvements to school meals and the school food environment.