In Defense of School Food

As the deadline for the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act approaches, the debate around school food has reached a cacophony of opinions. The politics of the debate are intense. Jerry Hagstrom at National Journal provided a great overview incase you have not been following the theatrics.

At the core of the school food debate is the balancing act of priorities between public health and economic viability.

Advocates for healthier school food do not have to struggle to make the case for keeping the nutrition requirements passed with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The nutrition standards are evidence based from the Institute of Medicine (IOM). For instance, sodium requirements that were supposed to be imposed for meals by 2017-2018 required meals to limit amounts to no more than 935-1,035 mg per meal. IOM recommends daily sodium intake to be limited to 2,300 mg for the entire day. So when the values are compared, the amount seems appropriate, as research has shown, excessive salt exposure at a young age can set children up for a life long preference for high amounts.

On a daily basis, kids consume on average 3,260 mg of sodium, 282-362 calories from added sugar and over consume the recommended amount of refined carbohydrates by 100%; all while consuming very little whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Less than 5% of children between the ages of 4-8 consume the recommended amount of 1.5 to 2 cups of vegetables per day. Across all ages, especially children, literally almost 0% of Americans meet the recommended intake for whole grains.

The fact that 77% of kids who are obese will stay that way the rest of their life is another motivating reason for improved dietary intake. Due to how society operates, sadly this weight is also connected to more hardships obtaining employment, relationships, and lower salary earnings over their lifetime. To be clear, improving school food is just one crucial part of a multifactorial approach to reverse the trend of childhood obesity and most importantly the diet related disease rates that are associated with excess weight.

A strong equity argument should also be made due the fact that low-income children are the largest group who relies on school food and are at the greatest risk for diet-related diseases. Of the 31 million students who received five billion meals during the 2013-2014 school year, 70 percent were either free of charge or reduced price. Research by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation demonstrated that improved nutrition standards might help to limit that disparity.

The other side of the coin is the reality of financial constraints and food preparation for large-scale school food operations. Although the Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act of 2010 stated improved childhood nutrition as the primary goal, this is not the only purpose of school food. Like it or not, school food is a business and directors are expected to generate a profit. This profit is important to help make sure they can employ their staff and keep their jobs. Billion dollar food companies also rely on school food revenue to increase their sales too.

According the School Nutrition Association, 1.4 million fewer children eat school lunch each day since the nutrition standards have been implemented. The onus of decreased participation cannot only be blamed on stronger nutrition requirements however. Higher school lunch prices and an improved economy might have also contributed to decrease participation. The issue of school food waste caused by the nutrition standards is also highly contentious. Research has demonstrated mixed results with some showing an increase and others a decrease after the nutrition standards were implemented.

School food service directors have a lot of obstacles to overcome in providing meals for potentially thousands of children five days a week. What works in your kitchen does not work for them. They need to manage staff, balance an inventory, overcome ingrained student taste preferences, stigmas about school lunch, and create a menu with a very, very limited budget. Your average food costs for a school lunch is less than a dollar. The food they provide is also largely complicated by what commodities are available from the USDA and how much labor they have available to produce the menu item.

Most also prepare food out of a central kitchen operation. This means that not only do they need to produce food on site, they also need to figure out what food ships well, maintains flavor during holding times and looks appetizing until it is served several hours later.

With these limits in place, it is no surprise school meals still emphasize a lot of already ready prepared goods. So-called kid favorites are still prevalent on the menu. Whole grain donuts, Uncrustable peanut butter sandwiches, whole wheat Eggo waffles, Domino’s smart slice pizza and whole grain corndogs are common occurrences . Most food companies have been able to create products for the guidelines. As Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich highlighted, companies like Domino’s are even expanding their sales in schools. Keep in mind that although these options may not sound like the most nutritious choices, research has shown schools meals are still much healthier then the brown bag lunches from home.

In my opinion, Addie Broyles of Austin360 accurately described the production of school lunch as being nothing short of a minor miracle.

Both sides of the school food dispute should begin to have a more apolitical approach. All sides do agree that funding should be increased and more resources should be provided. According to The PEW Charitable Trusts, only 37 percent of school food operations have budgets for staff training and 9 in 10 districts need at least one piece of kitchen equipment to better serve healthy meals. More organizations like FoodCorps are needed to help create a healthier school food environment through school gardens and cafeteria taste tests. Advocates can do more to highlight positive stories in the media of the food service directors who are succeeding and then some (like Missoula Public School District in Montana making kale chips for the entire district). School food supporter, Dale Hayes, wrote a great post on how you can support school lunch in your community.

Janet Poppendiek’s comment recently on one of the most passionate school food advocates Bettina Elias Siegel’s blog, The Lunch Tray, speaks to this point.

“I think that the larger good food community needs to stop demonizing SNA and listen a bit more carefully to just what food service folks are saying about how this is working out on the ground, and what they need to make it work better. The call for more resources for equipment and a more realistic reimbursement rate are not excuses for non-compliance. These are real, pressing needs in many districts. HHFK has made a big difference. We need to unite to support the achievement of its promise.”

Let’s continue the progress food service directors have made, address the real issues some are struggling with, provide resources and end the hostility currently felt between both sides. Let’s keep with our American tradition of overcoming adversity alive and well with helping to create a culture of health on our kid’s lunch trays. In the end, school food does not need to be political. It is not about being from a red or blue state; this is about making sure our children grow up as healthy as they can be.

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