On Wednesday, the USDA released new guidelines to improve the nutritional standard of school meals, to include more whole grains and a wider variety of vegetable offerings each week on lunch menus. The HealthierUS Food Challenge rewards participating schools with certification and a monetary award for providing students with an improved menu and opportunities for physical activity outside of recess. A Hartford Courant article, which reported on the program and highlighted the meeting of several school food service directors to discuss the implementation of the program, touts the involvement of “a dozen Connecticut school districts” in the meeting and “more than 40 schools from eight districts” in the certification.
While those participating schools should be recognized for their efforts, much more needs to be done to improve the quality of meals in Connecticut schools. The “more than 40 schools” adds up to only 41 schools, and more than half of them, 28 schools, are from the same two towns, Stamford and West Hartford. It’s not surprising that the two school districts with the most involvement are able to implement this program due to a larger amount of tax dollars allotted for these schools.
Therein lies the problem with most school lunch programs. Fresh vegetables and whole grains are simply more expensive, so canned fruits and vegetables and processed, pre-prepared foods are chosen instead. Even the most well-intentioned schools need to be budget conscious, and the expense of a healthier school lunch program lends it to be cost-prohibitive. But, with only 13 other schools from six additional districts participating, something different needs to be done in our schools.
The HealthierUS Food Challenge mandates that, along with the improved lunch program, schools meet additional criteria for certification, allowing a multi-faceted, comprehensive program focused on nutrition and physical activity. Other requirements for certification are:
- Nutrition education, both in school and at-home, to include MyPyramid and MyPlate and the program’s own Team Nutrition lessons. Middle schools would require at least one year-round nutrition-focused course, while high schools would call for a nutrition focus in at least two courses required for graduation.
- Minimum averages of physical education time per week. (Gold certification requires only a mere 90 minutes or 150 minutes per week.)
- Access to intramural/interscholastic sports or activity clubs.
- An assessment of other non-program foods sold in the school, either a la carte in the cafeteria or through other means, such as a vending machine or school store. This assessment includes a scan of the product’s nutritional label, as well as ingredient information or any available recipes.
- Behavioral changes in the school, such as avoiding the awarding of food (such as candy) for good academic performance, and a “commitment to neither deny nor require physical activity as a means of punishment (for example, students who misbehave are not denied recess.”
It’s true that better foods are more expensive, but I would urge more schools to get involved in this or another similar program. If such a lunch program still proves to be too costly, schools can still choose to implement the other activities, centered around nutrition education and physical activity, at little to no cost to foster a culture of health and wellness as a part of daily school life.
What is your school district doing to improve school lunches, nutrition education or physical activity?
How do you continue this education at home?