Despite Political Battle, Schools Forge Ahead With Healthier Meals

When the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released standards in 2012 to help ensure every public school student had access to nutritious healthy foods, probably few expected it would lead to a heated political debate. But under a proposed bill in Congress backed by Republicans, schools could receive waivers from the USDA to temporarily abandon the standards if their lunch programs have continually lost revenue.

First Lady Michelle Obama, a passionate advocate of healthy school nutrition, is opposed to any attempt to roll back the progress these guidelines have made. Critics also include Margo Wooten, policy director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who slammed the House proposal as “an attack on kids’ health dressed up as a favor to schools, when in fact 90 percent of schools are already meeting the new healthy lunch standards, helping kids eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.”

Most youth don’t meet the recommendations for fruits and vegetables or whole grains, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and their sodium intake exceeds the daily, recommended amount. Moreover, 40 percent of children and teenagers’ daily calories are empty calories – contributing to inadequate diets. Establishing low-sodium-based foods and including fresh fruit and vegetables in schools can benefit students for the rest of their lives.  A study published by the journal Childhood Obesity, showed that students in schools that introduced three or more nutrition practices or policies ate more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

Students’ behaviors also have been positively affected by the school nutrition standards, which is why many school districts have had high standards in place for years, even before the passage of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, the law that set the higher standards.

One district that has been ahead of the curve is Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS) in Michigan.

“We’re really ahead of everybody,” said Pamela Marcusse, food service worker at the K-5 Coit Creative Arts Academy. “We’ve been doing this for such a long time.” GRPS has won multiple awards for its food service, including the Healthy US School Challenge Award (gold, with distinction).

Having more nutritious foods for every student has been working well for GRPS, according to Marcusse. The district serves 8,500 breakfasts; 15,000 lunches; and 1,200 after school snacks per day.  Starting in 2006, GRPS began using products containing whole grains. In 2012, the district started offering fresh fruits and vegetables, some of which are locally grown.

GRPS not only administers better choices, but as of 2012, it gives all its students free meals under the USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). Since all students receive free meals under the provision, applications for free lunch are no longer required. To qualify, 40 percent of a school’s student body must be eligible for assistance.

Now available nationwide, the CEP was originally offered in three states, one of which was Michigan. Among the schools that include the provision in those three states, participation in breakfast and lunch rose 25 percent and 13 percent, respectively, according to nokidhungry.org.

An Education Support Professional for 19 years, Marcusse once served square-shaped pizza that offered little nutritional value. But the nutritional quality started to change about 14 years ago when GRPS eliminated deep fryers. Two years after that, the district added salad bars to its schools.

When students walk through Coit’s lunch line, Marcusse encourages them to indulge in fruits and vegetables, saying: “try it at least once.” Encouragement from ESPs and lunch coaches– volunteers who come into the lunchrooms to further students’ interest about eating healthier– can increase students’ consumption of fruits and vegetables.

In addition to an emphasis on quality food, GRPS adds educational awareness. Community college students from OrganWise Guys enter classrooms to teach students about the benefits of healthy eating – and to pinpoint certain organs that benefit from nutritious foods.

To help feed hungry students throughout the summer months, GRPS has several sites in the Grand Rapids area that serve free, healthy food to those 18 and under. The United States Department of Agriculture helps make this possible for school districts in the U.S.

“With families experiencing higher food and gas costs as well as other daily expenses and no school meals to help the daily budget,” GRPS nutrition services coordinator Amy Klinkoski explained. “Summer meals can help out that daily food cost a family has. Because the summer meals include fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low fat dairy, all of the nutrition messages from the school meal program are reinforced.”

Klinkoski recommends offering a variety by reviewing USDA Team Nutrition recipes, which are “kid tested and approved,” she said.

Although many students eat better while at school, a persistent question remains: Will they keep it up at home?

“They recognize the food and they’ll always go back to it,” Marcusse said. “They’re used to the new food. They’re getting stuff that they don’t get at home. They’ll say, ‘I tried this; can we get this?’”

“Healthy eating equates with better health, less absences, increased focus, especially with nutrients like iron and folic acid,” Klinkoski added. “If students are eating healthier in school, they will desire that food at home.”

TAKE ACTION TODAY! Tell Congress not to weaken nutrition standards.