The Senate Agriculture Committee approved legislation on Wednesday to reauthorize child nutrition programs, including school meal programs and nutrition standards.
President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act – the last child nutrition reauthorization – into law more than five years ago. Since then, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has updated the national nutrition standards for school meals and established nutrition standards for other foods sold in schools throughout the day.
As of last year, 97 percent of schools participating in the National School Lunch Program met these nutritional standards, up from 15 percent in 2009-2010, before the 2010 law went into effect.
School meals have had nutrition standards since the lunch program was first implemented during the Truman administration. Yet the current standards are by far the most comprehensive and are based on a 2008 Institute of Medicine report commissioned during the 2004 child nutrition reauthorization to review the science and recommend what constitutes a healthy school meal.
Chef Greg Silverman, managing director of Wellness in the Schools, said the updated school meal standards are critical to ensuring that millions of children have access to healthy food options. Rolling back nutrition standards would be detrimental to the progress that has been made by schools, the food industry and others to meet these requirements, he said.
However, Silverman stressed that faculty, staff, parents and outside groups must be willing to help schools make the necessary changes to meet the standards.
“We all want for there to be healthier food for kids – moderate levels of sodium, less saturated fats and processed sugars. But not all schools are prepared to do that because of a dearth of equipment or lack of proper training and support,” Silverman said.
But through Wellness in the Schools, or WITS, programs Silverman and his team help schools who may face challenges to meet nutritional standards and fundamentally reimagine the lunch experience for public school students.
New York City, where WITS primarily operates, is home to the largest U.S. school district, serving about 1 million children each day. In partnership with the Department of Education, WITS works with 75 New York City public schools and helps schools serve more than 40,000 of those 1 million children daily.
“A significant amount of those children are low-income and are eligible for free school meals,” Silverman said. “So we have to work hand in hand with the NYC Department of Education and the schools directly to ensure schools actually have the ability to meet those nutrition standards.”
A frequently cited argument against current school meal standards is that kids do not like the healthier foods they are being served and have, in turn, increased food waste. However, a recent Harvard School of Public Health study showed kids are now eating 16 percent more vegetables, 23 percent more fruit and are throwing away less food.
Meanwhile, recent surveys found that 70 percent of elementary school administrators and food service staff report positive feedback from their students on the healthier lunch standards, and 72 percent of parents support nutrition standards for school meals.
Silverman says the majority of food waste that does happen is not because kids don’t like the healthier food options, but rather the children are not familiar with the often new and different foods.
“One of the big things that WITS does is we teach Cooking Labs – cooking classes that happen during the school day. For instance, in the bean lab at one school we just taught a group of kids how to make hummus,” Silverman said. “So now kids see hummus on the lunch line and they know what it is. They’ve tasted it, they have prepared it, and it’s not foreign and it’s not weird. And they love it.”
Experts say plate waste can also be mitigated by things like presentation of food, time of lunch, length of lunch and having recess before lunch.
Overall, Silverman said educating children about where their food comes from and how it’s made is essential to create a culture of health in schools.
“Just putting healthy food on kids’ plates is not going to guarantee consumption,” he said. “Children, like all of us, need engagement and exposure to new, healthy foods if we want long-term changes in kids’ eating habits.”
In a city as diverse as New York, finding foods to suit ethnic and cultural tastes can also pose a challenge, Silverman said.
“But I think the NYC DOE has done a good job of making the menu a mix for all kids so they can experience food from different cultures and expand their palate. This ensures they aren’t just eating pizza and burgers, but are having a mix of healthy options such as veggie quesadilla, lo mein, hummus or sabroso roasted chicken,” Silverman said.
“NYC is a melting pot, and its lunch mirrors that.”