Why Healthy School Lunch Standards Are Worth Fighting For

Titus BaileyLawmakers in Congress have proposed allowing schools to temporarily opt out of the healthy school lunch standards put in place by the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act. Donna West, a cafeteria manager at Brownwood Elementary School in Scottsboro, AL, and an NEA board member, explains why such a move would undermine not only student health, but also academic achievement.

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Four years ago, when we introduced wheat rolls during lunch at Brownwood Elementary School in Scottsboro, Alabama, most ended up in the garbage. At the time, we were starting our “healthy school challenge.” Fortunately, with patience and persistence the changes are now an accepted part of our food culture and our students are healthier for it.

Nutrition updates involved serving meals with less sugar, salt, and fat. With the advent of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), which set higher nutritional standards for school lunches, I expect many food service workers across the country were experiencing the same agony I was at seeing whole grain bread, fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods end up in the trash.

Eating healthy is a lifestyle change. It takes time to move forward, but I am seeing it happen at Brownwood. Some of this progress is the result of having legislation like the HHFKA that promotes more healthy and nutritious meals for our students.

Unfortunately, just as students are beginning to embrace healthier food choices, some in Congress are attempting to roll back standards contained in the HHFKA. A new proposal would allow schools to opt out of nutrition rules requiring more fruits and vegetables, less sodium and more whole grain-rich products.

We should not fall back but instead move full steam ahead into funding the purchase of fresh produce, adequate kitchen equipment and food storage facilities. It is vital that schools lead the charge and work with food manufacturers to provide suitable products for students.

These actions are important for two reasons: First, the federal government is currently being funded under a continuing resolution that expires December 11. The proposal was included in an Agriculture spending bill approved by the House Appropriations Committee earlier this year, but was not voted on by the full House. A similar Senate bill does not include the waiver language.

Second, as we prepare for the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act in 2015, watching this waiver go into effect would undercut nutrition standards that successfully weaned us away from the days of declaring pizza a vegetable. Child obesity and diabetes rates continue to highlight the legislation’s necessity.

As a result of HHFKA, students at Brownwood have been exposed to stricter nutritional guidelines their entire school career. They actually eat their wheat rolls! But the struggle continues. More nutrition education is necessary for students to embrace healthier foods. There is also a need for food service workers to create a greater variety of nutritious, tasty and appealing meals for students.

This may require increased funding to modernize kitchens, update equipment, and train education support professionals (ESPs) to prepare more food on site from scratch. Fresh is best!

By using fresh, less processed and local (if possible) food products, we not only provide quality choices for students but also inject much-needed dollars into local economies and reduce our carbon footprint for future generations.

It will take time to fully see the results of this cultural shift in school menus. It’s a long range goal. But it is worth pursuing. If we revert to serving less nutritious meals, even for one year as some in Congress propose, we could increase health care costs and diminish the quality of life for an entire generation.

Research shows us that proper nutrition improves concentration and test scores while decreasing disciplinary issues. Students who are properly fueled are more likely to stay on task and are better able to focus on their studies. A well nourished body also has energy and endurance for physical activity.

Many families in this country cannot afford fresh fruits as a healthy snack alternative. So introduction of fruits and vegetables at school are key to helping students make the connection between a healthy snack and one that has no nutritional value.

Congress has an opportunity to keep America’s school meals moving forward toward helping raise a healthier generation. Our own Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) is Chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture. He can help steer Congress to continue to support the gains we’ve made. With 90 percent of schools reporting that they are meeting the standards set by the HHFKA, signs are evident that the childhood obesity rate is beginning to fall.

Now is not the time to turn back. I can tell from watching my kids at Brownwood that patience more than legislative power need to be exhibited. The one-year waiver being proposed in Congreess is a stark retreat from promoting healthier meal standards in schools.

It is also a direct affront to parents who strive to serve healthy food at home and look to schools to partner with them in this effort. The tens of millions of kids now getting better nutrition in school need your help. Contact your congressional member and ask that they support the HHFKA by rejecting a waiver.

Photo: Associated Press