Food and Nutrition

What New Nutrition Standards Mean for School Food

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by Mark Bishop, Vice President of Policy and Communications

The past few months have seen big news in the world of school food. In December, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed, reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act for the first time in more than five years. At the signing of the bill, President Obama said, “We've seen the connection between what kids eat and how well they perform in school.” And two weeks ago, the USDA took steps to implement the law by proposing new nutrition standards for the first time in nearly 15 years.

This is a good step forward and USDA’s quick movement in proposing these new standards is to be applauded.

However, we need to be realistic in recognizing that it will take months if not years before these rules are actually implemented in schools. Improving school food doesn’t happen overnight, nor does it happen with the passage of a single bill. The new standards are very important and will go a long way in moving change along -- but bringing healthy school food to schools across the country will only happen with the day-to-day creativity, hard work and dedication of school food service staff, parents and administrators in thousands of schools across the country.

As important as these new standards will be, we can’t take our eyes off the long-range goal of providing healthy food at the school level, for all children.

A few thoughts:

We need to stay engaged during the process of finalizing the new nutrition standards. While school food standards have been introduced, this is only the beginning. The new legislation requires the USDA to implement new standards for school food within 18 months. This means there will be months of meetings, public discussion, comment periods and many conversations about what school food should look like. These standards are closely based on the report issued by the Institute of Medicine in October 2009, but that doesn’t mean that the USDA will accept the IOM recommendations in their entirety. Importantly, this means we all need to stay engaged to ensure that healthful standards are set.  

And remember that six-cent increase in the school lunch reimbursement? Well, schools only receive it after the new standards are set and after they comply with those standards. In a time when most schools are already losing more than 35 cents per meal (and double that in large urban districts), this extra money will be welcomed -- but it’s not going to provide a level of resources to allow schools to suddenly provide higher quality meals.

We need to make sure schools provide an environment that supports healthy eating and wellness.  The reality is that food in the cafeteria is only one piece of the larger puzzle of a healthy school food environment. As the USDA determines new nutrition standards, we need to make sure the other pieces are also as healthful as possible. Teachers can incorporate health and wellness into classroom activities; principals need to employ strategies to incorporate wellness throughout the day; school nurses need to promote prevention and wellness in their practices; parents need to stay engaged with supporting healthy behaviors: we all have a role to play.

It’s encouraging to see examples of this kind of change bubbling up across the country. In Chicago, we’ve launched Go for the Gold, a citywide campaign to engage parents, teachers, principals, chefs, corporations and community leaders in meeting the high standards for school food, nutrition education and physical activity set by the HealthierUS School Challenge. We’re seeing how important it is to tap into the resources in our community and help schools connect with resources to succeed. Since Go for the Gold launched about six months ago, 15 schools have achieved these standards and submitted their applications, while dozens more are making changes. We’ve seen the community step forward to support schools in achieving these impressive goals: 65 chefs sharing healthy eating lessons on Chef in the Classroom day, corporations providing support through the Civic & Business Advisory Committee, and partner organizations working with schools to provide nutrition education and physical activity opportunities.

The USDA started with the easy stuff.  The USDA proposed standards for school lunch which are based on the work done by the Institute of Medicine. This work has been discussed for well over a year already. However, more work is ahead in developing and proposing new standards for other parts of the school food environment. It will likely be much more controversial when the USDA proposes the standards for all other foods sold in schools: fundraisers, pizza parties, vending machines. . . that will likely generate a more heated debate. And this is where the USDA has a real opportunity to make change.

In all the news that we’ve seen around these new standards, there has been lots of hyperbole. Coverage has ranged from “A Giant Step for Children’s Health” to “New School Food Standards Fail Civil Rights Test.”

But I think Ed Bruske got the tone right on when he wrote, “serving real food in school takes radical changes on the local level, not merely tinkering with standards originating in Washington. That means an attitude change and a commitment on the part of local school officials, parents, and elected leaders.”

My hope is that the new standards originating in Washington are going to make the necessary changes in our schools look a little less radical.