School Nutrition Standards Key to Healthier, More Productive Youngsters

(This post features another excerpt from the conversation FRAC President Jim Weill had earlier this month with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack about the strengths of federal nutrition programs and their contributions to America’s health)

Jim Weill: At the same time that many schools have been moving toward implementing community eligibility, nearly 100,000 schools with lunch and breakfast programs have been implementing the improved school nutrition standards. How are these standards impacting children’s nutrition and health?

Secretary Vilsack: It is very important to USDA not just to improve access to school meals programs, but also the quality of foods youngsters are eating. We studied this issue and asked experts to opine about the appropriateness of the meals that we were serving. The experts came back and very clearly said that the meals had too much sodium, too much sugar, and too much fat, and that we really needed to focus more on fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, and whole grains.

With the help and direction of Congress, and FRAC’s assistance in getting the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 passed, we began the process of formulating new rules and a new approach to school menus. As a result, we have seen 16 percent more vegetables and 23 percent more fruits being consumed by our youngsters, which means they are getting more nutritious meals. We’re seeing obesity rates plateauing among young children, and especially a decline among our youngest children. We’re seeing that 70 percent of elementary students like the changes and 97 percent of the school districts across the country have embraced these standards.

We continue to work on those schools that are having a hard time implementing the standards because they don’t know how to set up the menus and/or know how to procure fruits and vegetables. With our Team Up for Success program, we are pairing schools in similar situations—perhaps in a rural area—that are having a hard time implementing the standards with a similar rural school in another state, or just even in the same state.

School nutrition is a topic we feel very strongly about. In her Let’s Move Initiative, the First Lady focuses not just on making sure kids spend 60 minutes a day being physically active, but she also focuses on calories eaten. We also have teamed up with the National Football League for our Fuel Up to Play 60 program to make sure youngsters understand – from adults whom they look up to and respect – that having a nutritious meal, eating fruits and vegetables and having access to dairy and whole grains, are things not to be avoided, but embraced.

We’re very hopeful that with FRAC’s advocacy, and your great network of anti-hunger advocates, that we can encourage members of Congress to continue down this path by reauthorizing the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which will give us another five years to implement the school nutrition standards. And, at that point in time, we’re going to have a generation of much healthier and more productive young people.