With national school nutrition standards up for reauthorization in Congress, a new survey finds that most Americans support healthier school meals.
Earlier this week, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation released the findings of a national survey in which 86 percent of respondents said they support today’s school nutrition standards and 88 percent support government-funded farm-to-school programs that provide schools with fresh, local produce. In 2010, the signing of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act ushered in the first update of school food and drink nutrition standards in 15 years, and as of June 2014, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that more than 90 percent of schools were successfully meeting the new standards. The nutrition standards help ensure school meals include more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean protein and low-fat dairy as well as less sugar, fat and sodium.
“Today, 67 percent of Americans say the nutritional quality of food served in public school cafeterias is excellent or good, which is up 41 percent from a national survey we conducted in 2010, before the standards were adopted,” said La June Montgomery Tabron, president and CEO of the Kellogg Foundation, in a news release.
The survey, which included 1,200 randomly selected adults across the U.S., also found that a majority believes healthier school meal standards are key to children’s well-being. Specifically, 93 percent of respondents said it’s “very important” or “somewhat important” to serve nutritious school foods to support children’s health and ensure children are ready to learn and excel academically. In addition, 86 percent said the nutrition standards should stay the same or be strengthened. Ninety-one percent said kids should have access to safe drinking water at school.
“Kids eat what they know — and today more than 23 million students are learning about healthy food and local farms in the classroom and cafeteria through farm-to-school activities,” said Anupama Joshi, executive director of the National Farm to School Network.
Despite the support, the new school nutrition standards are no stranger to criticism. The standards have been described as the “nanny state personified” and criticized for resulting in additional food waste and being too burdensome on school food personnel. But research doesn’t necessarily bear out those last two points. For example, a study published in the June 2015 issue of Childhood Obesity found that in comparing students’ eating behaviors in 2014 versus 2012, they were now eating more fruit, throwing away less of the entrees and vegetables, and drinking the same amount of milk. The study concluded: “Overall, the revised meal standards and policies appear to have significantly lowered plate waste in school cafeterias.” Another study published in March 2014 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that the new nutrition standards led to more fruit and vegetable consumption in school and did not increase the amount of per-person food waste.
In terms of being too burdensome on school cafeteria staff, the USDA reported in May that 95 percent of schools were in compliance with the new nutrition standards. Other research has found kids actually like the healthier meals. For example, a study in the August 2014 issue of Childhood Obesity examined survey responses from administrators and food service staff at more than 500 elementary schools. That study found that 70 percent of respondents agreed that students like the new lunches.
Still, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is set to expire next month and its opponents are using the reauthorization process as an opportunity to rollback the nutrition standards. For example, the House agricultural appropriations bill contains language that would prohibit the use of funds to implement regulations that decrease the amount of sodium served in school meals until more study is done on the benefits of sodium reduction for children. Among the loudest critics of the new school nutrition standards is the School Nutrition Association — a list of some of their food company sponsors is here.
In response to calls to weaken or rollback the nutrition standards, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said the agency is working closely with schools to provide the flexibility, guidance and financial support to help them meet and sustain healthier meal options. In an opinion piece published yesterday in AgWeek, Vilsack wrote: “Opponents would have you think kids won’t eat the healthier meals because they are too burdensome on schools. But we’ve talked to the dedicated school meal professionals working in school cafeterias, as well as the students, and the negative rhetoric does not match reality.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 17 percent, or 12.7 million, children and adolescents ages 2 through 19 are obese. In encouraging news, however, obesity among young children ages 2 to 5 has decreased from nearly 14 percent in 2003–2004 to 8.4 percent in 2011–2012.
For a copy of the new survey on Americans’ attitudes toward school nutrition changes, visit the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.