The U.S. is in the midst of a fullblown obesity epidemic that has disproportionately affected our children. Currently, nearly one third of children are overweight or obese. The health consequences of obesity in children are
staggering. Recent research shows that an obese child’s arteries can resemble those of a middle-aged adult and obese adolescents have an overwhelming chance of becoming obese adults. Students consume 35%- 50% of their daily caloric intake at school, where they are often exposed to junk foods and sugary drinks that have little to no nutritional value. Schools can institute a healthy environment by promoting and providing nutritious meals.
In December 2010, President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which gave the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) the authority to update national nutrition standards for school meals and establish nutrition standards for other foods sold in schools throughout the school day. As a result, in school year 2013-2014, nearly 90% of schools in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) met nutritional standards, up from 14% in 2009-2010. That means an overwhelming majority of children are receiving heart-healthy lunches while at school.
The law has had several other positive effects on school nutrition and health. For example:
- Local wellness policies have been strengthened by creating more accountability and better implementation.
- The Smart Snacks in School standards, which are set to go into effect during the 2014-2015 school year, update nutrition standards for all foods sold on the school campus outside of the meal program throughout the school day,
- including vending machines, a la carte, and school stores. Many schools have already met the Smart Snacks standards, and many in the foo d industry are already either in compliance with or in support of these standards.
- Schools now receive $.06 performance-based increase in the federal reimbursement rate for school lunches for meeting the updated nutrition standards for lunch.
- Farm-to-school programs now receive $5 million annually in mandatory funding.
- Kids’ consumption of fruits and vegetables has increased.
- A Government Accounting Office (GAO) report concluded that while there have been some challenges in implementing the school lunch standards, school meals are now healthier than ever and challenges are expected to resolveover time as school food service and students adjust to the changes.
Don't Give up on Children's Health
While there have been challenges, that’s not unexpected. Kids are adjusting to the new meals and appropriate portion sizes – in fact, recent interviews by the GAO showed that students like to eat healthy food and think the new school meals are healthier. Parents are happier that their children are not receiving junk for a meal. And while there has been some criticism about participation declining, this downward trend started in 2007, well before the school meal standards went into effect in 2012. In fact, the GAO report also noted that participation will likely improve over time as students and school food service fully adapt to healthier meals. Like students who may struggle in classrooms, schools that struggle with the new standards need assistance, not a pass or waiver. It is critical that schools are not forced to stop mid-implementation or get mixed messages of what is required of them. Let’s help these schools move forward and not turn back the clock on our children’s health. The evidence is overwhelming that the new school meal standards are working. Going into child nutrition reauthorization for 2015, the American Heart Association advocates for:
- Continued support to schools for effective implementation of the federal nutrition standards for school meals.
- Continued strong implementation of Smart Snacks in School standards. These standards include reducing sodium; eliminating trans fat; decreasing saturated fat; minimizing fried foods; offering healthy beverages; and increasing the offering of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, seafood, and low-fat dairy.
- Continued robust technical assistance by the USDA to support schools in implementing nutrition standards, effective nutrition education, and nutrition promotion and model local wellness policies with effective implementation and evaluation.