As students across the country prepare to head back to school in a few weeks, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is launching a massive push to help schools implement new national nutrition standards for meals.
The hallmark of this effort is the USDA’s Healthier School Day website, which features an online toolkit that includes brochures, fact sheets, fliers, school lessons and other resources to help schools as they transition to a healthier meal plan.
Under guidelines officially put into place by the USDA earlier this year, schools are now required to serve more whole grains, fruits and vegetables and less unhealthy ingredients such as sugar and salt. The new guidelines are designed to promote better nutrition among young people and reduce childhood obesity.
While many schools already have implemented the guidelines, others still need to make major changes in order to meet them, from reallocating school budgets to simply figuring out where to acquire healthier food. The USDA’s Healthier School Day is designed to help these schools in the months ahead.
On a webinar promoting the effort on Wednesday afternoon, USDA officials acknowledged the challenges some schools are facing but noted that the new school meals standards will make a huge impact on the health of children across the nation.
“Change doesn’t always come easy,” said Duke Storen, the chief of staff for Special Nutrition Programs at the USDA. “What we’ve tried to do is put together resources… to help.”
Along with the toolkit, the USDA is also offering assistance to schools that need to explain the guidelines to staff, parents, community members and students. For example, the agency is urging schools to introduce new food to students in a fun way through tactics such as taste testing, which allows kids to try out a handful of healthy items and vote on their favorites.
Strategic planning also can help make the transition to the new guidelines easier, said Annette Hendrickx-Derouin, director of Food and Nutrition Services for a school system in rural Minnesota. Hendrickx-Derouin, who already implemented the changes on her campuses, recommends schools start by reviewing their current menu to analyze student preferences and then consider beginning a cycle menu to help make meal development a bit easier. She also recommends schools develop their main entrees first and then figure out sides, which should include both a hot and cold vegetable.
Although many schools are still transitioning to the new guidelines, officials already are getting positive feedback, Storen noted.
When the school meal standards were first proposed by the USDA last year, the agency received roughly 130,000 public comments on them, mostly in support. Media coverage of the new guidelines also has been overwhelmingly positive, officials said.
“I don’t know when I’ve ever in my professional career heard so many positive comments about school meals,” said Dr. Janey Thornton, the USDA’s deputy undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services.
Chef Sam Kass, who serves as a senior policy adviser for food initiatives at the White House, told webinar attendees that the guidelines reflect “tremendous and groundbreaking leadership in this moment,” and he predicts future generations will see them as a historic step forward in America’s health history.
Click here to visit the USDA’s Healthier School Day website.