Helping Improve Nutrition in Our Schools
Nov 12, 2018
According to the U.S. Department of Education, there were 56.6 million children and teenagers enrolled in U.S. elementary and secondary schools across the country as of the fall of 2018. A disturbingly large share of those young people are obese--nearly one out of five (18.5 percent of children aged 2 to 19) in 2015-16, a 240 percent increase from 1976, as reported in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) dataset collected by the Centers for Disease Control.
There have been many factors that have contributed to this phenomenon, but increased consumption of energy-dense but not very nutritious foods, often through fast food outlets, has played a significant role. During the school year, those young people spend more than a third of their waking hours at their local school, so that environment offers tremendous opportunities to address this problem by improving the nutritional quality of the food they eat, at least during the time they spend on school grounds.
Nationally, about 30 million children participated in the school lunch program in fiscal year 2017, two thirds of those children receiving free meals because their family’s income fell below the poverty threshold for their household size. Just under half that number, 14.66 million children, also regularly participated in the school breakfast program in that year. The participation level is lower because not all U.S. schools offer this program.
In 2010, Congress passed the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, reauthorizing the U.S. school lunch and breakfast programs and for the first time establishing nutritional guidelines for the various foods served under these programs. The guidelines were largely based on recommendations provided in a study conducted by the Institute of Medicine in 2009. They included the following provisions:
- increase the amounts of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains consumed
- reduce saturated fats and sodium, and
- Require students to take at least one fruit or vegetable as part of their school meal
USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), which oversees the school lunch and breakfast programs, also runs several other programs which supplement the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables to school children. The so-called DOD Fresh program was piloted in 1996, and involved using the sophisticated procurement network that the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has developed for delivering goods to its military institutions around the country to also procure fresh fruits and vegetables locally for schools. The program was first included as a formal provision of the 2002 farm bill. Today, schools in 48 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Guam participate in the program.
The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program was started in the 2002 farm bill as a pilot program, aimed at helping school children both to improve their underlying nutritional status and become familiar with such products by providing them as regular snacks during the school day. Only schools in which not less than 50 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-cost school lunches are eligible to apply.
The Farm to School Program, launched as a pilot program in California and Florida during the 1996-97 school year, is now active in every state. This program helps children in school get access to locally produced fresh food and also offers them opportunities to learn more about food and agriculture by establishing school gardens and sponsoring field trips to local farms. As of 2018, about 23 million children in more than 42,000 schools from around the country benefit from this program, and an estimated $789 million worth of food was purchased locally for use in school lunch programs. The Office of Community Food Systems at FNS/USDA operates a grant program for Farm to School. That program will provide $7.5 million in fiscal year 2019, and grants are available to both school systems and farm organizations, with a maximum level of $100,000 per grant. Any organization that received funds from the grant program in the two previous funding cycles are not eligible. A 25 percent match is required--the application deadline for those funds is December 4, 2018.
The new nutrition guidelines under the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act were promulgated in time for the 2012/13 school year. In the first few months, there were scattered reports of some school children rejecting the new food choices. These reports helped spark Republican criticism of the new guidelines as overly paternalistic, focusing on First Lady Michelle Obama’s contribution to the effort. At the urging of some in the food processing and retail sector, the Republican who took control of the House of Representatives starting in 2011 succeeded in weakening some of those requirements in the last few years, such as those relating to reducing sodium content and requiring consumption of whole grain food products.
Despite the pushback, the combination of the new nutrition guidelines and the improved availability of fresh fruits and vegetables through these programs seems to be working. A 2014 study by Harvard researchers reported that, under the updated standards for school meals, kids are now eating 16 percent more vegetables and 23 percent more fruit at lunch. Comparable studies conducted in recent years by the Baylor College of Medicine, the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity in Connecticut, and the University of Washington drew similar conclusions.