Push for Healthy School Meals Continues

Connexeo - 07/03/2018

Some may be surprised to learn that students on Free and Reduced Price school meal plans (FRP) eat more servings of fruits and vegetables than those who are not on those programs -- 22.2 times per week for fifth-grade FRP participants vs. 18.9 times for non-FRP students.

And, healthier school lunches are resulting in higher test scores, according to a 2017 National Bureau of Economic Research study of California schools who use outside vendors to prepare meals. State achievement test scores increased by 0.028 standard deviations during the first year of the healthy-lunch deal. Disadvantaged students’ deviations rose above 0.03, while advantaged students’ were about 0.025.

The study, however, did not find that the healthier student lunches affected obesity rates, which was one of the goals of the Healthy-Hunger Free Kids Act, passed by Congress in 2010 and extended in 2015. The law updated school nutrition standards, though some of the restrictions have been eased or delayed during the past two years in attempts to give schools more time to meet the standards.

Beyond law requirements, many schools and school districts are taking matters into their own hands to offer more nutritious breakfasts and lunches to their students.

For example, the Greeley-Evans School District 6 in Colorado participates in the farm-to-school process, according to the School Meals that Rock website. Almost 25% of its food purchases are local, and nearly all its meals are prepared from scratch. The district’s nutrition services department works to expand school garden programs and farm and chef education initiatives.

Several organizations have established campaigns to encourage schools to offer healthier meals. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is one, stating that “foods served in schools should promote the health of all children.”

One of the campaign’s pillars is its annual Golden Carrot Awards, which honors programs that encourage children to eat primarily fresh fruits and vegetables. They favor vegetarian/vegan options.

The 2017 winner was the Austin Independent School District in Texas, which, the committee said, “emphasizes made-from-scratch meals, featuring fresh, local grown produce, global flavors and a salad bar in every school.” The district was applauded for its veggie/vegan offerings such as quinoa breakfast bowls and vegan lentil chili Frito pie.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest gears its school-meal campaign more toward education and has a list of tips for educators on how to support healthy school meals. They include:

  • Speaking positively about school meals and encouraging students to try the new dishes, even if unfamiliar.
  • Occasionally eating lunch – including the new foods – with students.
  • Incorporating nutrition education into the curriculum.
  • Serving healthier items during class parties (i.e.: fruit smoothies or apple slices instead of cake and ice cream).
  • Encourage school organizations to substitute unhealthy fund-raisers such as bake sales or candy sales for non-food, fruit or bottled water sales.

Of course, many schools and districts have long since changed over vending machines from offering sodas, fructose-laden “juice drinks” and candy, to water, 100% juice and healthier snacks. And parents are being constantly reminded by external sources not to pack unhealthy meals and snacks in their children’s lunch boxes and brown bags.

While the days of the greasy cheeseburger and “chef’s surprise” may never be fully eliminated, school meals do seem to be getting healthier, and school participation in the newer standards is high. Like the changes we see evolving in our general public’s dietary interests, our schools are evolving with more varied food selections, organic options, and a push for healthier choices. 

The California study shows healthy meals are improving academic performance, and national statistics show increased consumption of fruits and vegetables. 


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