Food for thought
There’s no question that healthy children learn better, which is why the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 went to great lengths to reduce sodium and fat levels in school meals while increasing whole grains and vegetables.
But current efforts to roll back nutrition guidelines could negate the progress that has been made, says Colin Schwartz, deputy director of legislative affairs for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
An estimated 17% of young people ages 2-19 are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which could lead to long-term health problems later in life, including heart disease and diabetes.
“We need to ensure that low-income children still maintain access to healthy school foods, particularly those having safe levels of salt and more whole grains,” Schwartz says.
Let’s start with the big question: How healthy are school lunches today?
School lunches are definitely healthier than they were before the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act. We’ve made tremendous progress in improving the quality of school meals, which is why it’s so concerning and disappointing to see what the Trump administration has done to jeopardize that progress.
How are they healthier?
School meals today have fruits and vegetables and more whole grains, less salt and less fat, and no trans fats. They also offer healthier snacks and beverages, too. There are no full-calorie sodas, and the worst of the junk food is gone.
A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture study actually shows that the nutritional quality of school breakfast and school lunch has increased significantly.
All of this being said, we still have our work cut out for us to maintain the progress on sodium reduction in school meals because the Trump administration weakened the sodium reduction targets. So we’re now at risk of kids still having too much salt, which puts their health at risk. We need to lower the salt to safe levels. I’m not talking about low sodium. This is just about bringing salt in school meals down to safe levels.
Schools should also be limiting the amount of added sugar in meals, too. There are still a lot of very sugary breakfasts in schools, such as doughnuts, French toast dippers, syrupy pancakes and other really sweet breakfast foods.
How did the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act improve school lunches?
The bill made schools have to improve significantly in their meals’ nutritional quality, which was a huge victory. A big part of that had less to do with meals than with competitive foods—getting full-calorie soda and other junk foods out of schools.
The act also made significant investments in expanding the universal meals program to provide free meals to all students, regardless of income. Recent research indicates that the improvement to school foods alone will prevent a million cases of childhood obesity and save $500 million in reduced healthcare costs over 10 years.
The improvement to school foods alone will prevent a million cases of childhood obesity and save $500 million in reduced healthcare costs over 10 years.
The improvement programs are now at risk because of the Trump administration and Congress. There are efforts to try to limit these programs to generate savings, but we’re very concerned that they would also reduce access to healthy foods for low-income kids.
There is a push to reintroduce full-fat or whole milk into schools, which was eliminated by the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act.
It is largely an effort by the dairy industry and the trade associations that represent it. Dairy farmers are hurting for various reasons in this economy. They’re trying every which way to increase the number of milk products in federal feeding programs, and there are bills in Congress now to that effect. School food programs are just one way they’re trying to increase milk sales so that dairy farmers can sell their milk.
What is the reaction from schools?
Schools are not asking for this. They’re not asking for whole milk, and they’re not asking for reduced fat milk.
The Trump administration already allows low-fat chocolate milk as a result of requests from the dairy industry, and now they’re going after whole milk. That obviously would conflict with the dietary guidelines for Americans, which is what the school nutrition standards are based on.
The 2015 dietary guidelines make it clear that we should only be consuming fat-free and low-fat milk in place of reduced fat or 2% and whole milk to reduce our saturated fat intake. Allowing whole milk into schools would be contrary to the dietary guidelines.
What is the dairy industry’s main argument?
There’s a lot of misinformation being propagated by the supporters of these bills—and by the dairy industry—that is simply not true. They say, for instance, they are concerned that milk is being thrown out in schools, and milk waste is an issue.
It’s true that there is a lot of waste in schools, but there was likely always a lot of milk waste. But, in general, food waste in schools has not changed.
In many cases, you can actually decrease it by doing various things, such as giving kids more time to eat. It has nothing to do with the standards.
They also say kids have to get the nutrients they can’t get any other way, but that doesn’t make sense because kids are already drinking fat-free and low-fat milk in school, and that milk provides all the nutrients—calcium, vitamins A and D, and potassium—they need.
They don’t need whole milk to get those nutrients, so they would then end up consuming more fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and calories because of it. It is a very big concern.
Are many schools offering options such as soy or almond milk?
They are. A lot of schools offer plant-based milk because a lot of students are lactose intolerant or just don’t drink milk due to dietary preferences or other reasons. Schools can also be reimbursed for soy milk because the nutrients are equivalent to milk. Other milks don’t have the same amount of protein or vitamins. Schools can get reimbursed for soy milk by the federal government.
They’re reimbursed through the National School Lunch Program. If a school doesn’t want to bring back full-fat milk, can they opt out or is there a penalty?
Schools wouldn’t be penalized for not offering whole milk because they’d still get reimbursed for fat-free and low-fat milk. The law requires schools to be consistent with the dietary guidelines.
If the dairy industry has its way and bills pass to strike that requirement, it will put kids at greater risk for a variety of chronic diet-related diseases and reverse the progress that we’re making.
Is there anything that districts or individual schools can do to take control of what they feed their students?
Yes, there are a number of things that schools and districts can do. This is more relevant for sodium and whole grains, but they can prevent a backslide and not follow what the USDA did by weakening the standards.
Instead, they can continue reducing sodium and providing more whole grains on their menus and not buying low-fat chocolate milk.
They could keep on buying fat-free chocolate milk. Again, we hear from schools that they did not ask for this. Students weren’t complaining that “we wish we had low-fat chocolate milk in school.” School meal operators weren’t complaining about it, so they’re not going to buy it.
What schools buy obviously makes a difference, and they can keep on meeting the stronger (pre-rollback) evidence-based standards for their students.
They can also work to support a Local Wellness Policy. It’s a written document of official policies that guides a local school district’s efforts to establish an environment that promotes students’ health, well-being and ability to learn by supporting healthy eating and physical activity.
I believe that people should definitely be concerned that we’ve made tremendous progress with school meals and now that progress is being jeopardized by the current administration—largely because of its deregulatory agenda, which is, unfortunately, now affecting schoolchildren.
What we would like to see is that Congress, as it considers child nutrition reauthorization this year, also address sugar in school meals because there’s far too much sugar in school breakfasts.
Tim Goral is senior editor