School nutrition policy seems to be a good place to start for Nutripolicy. It is, after all, a topic at the forefront of the world of nutrition policy (Thank you, First Lady Obama!). I hope we can all agree that the food we serve to our children in public schools is more than just a meal. Lunch time provides opportunities for us both to teach our children about food and nutrition and to make sure they’re getting important nutrients they may not be getting elsewhere. I would even argue that it is oftentimes the only channel to proper education on nutrition a school-aged child is exposed to.
Let’s face it, most kids don’t go home from school to a MyPlate-esque dinner every night. As the world gets a little crazier and a lot busier, so do parents, and meals must often be rushed. Pizza. Frozen dinners. Too much food. Not enough food. If this is what we’re being exposed to as kids, it’s what we become accustomed to as adults. But if we eat like that all the time, we are indeed going to have problems later on.
This is where school lunches (and sometimes breakfasts too) come in. They can provide one-third (or two-thirds) of the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) of protein, Vitamins A&C, iron, calcium, and calories.
Why is change so difficult?
Changing the way we feed our children is not a simple as it sounds. The food industry has more than enough reason not to miss a single beat when it comes to school nutrition policy change. Food corporations are invested in the status quo, and policy change could mean losing hundreds of millions of dollars. In fact, in 2011, the food industry spent $40 million on lobbying efforts. It is clear how much they have to lose if that is what they are willing to spend annually in order to prevent it. After all, unhealthy food does cost more than healthy food. So why would they care about healthy futures when they’re making so much money?
There have been dozens of alterations to child nutrition programs over the past 60+ years (Check them out: School Nutrition Association), but we still have a long way to go. There had been essentially no improvement over the last 15 years or so, until recently.
In January of this year, Michelle Obama and Tom Vilsack announced exciting new school nutrition guidelines. The USDA’s comparison chart can best explain these changes (to come in September of this year). Here are some of the highlights:
- More fruits and vegetables
- Weekly requirements for types of vegetables (no more French fries or tomato sauce 5 days a week!)
- More whole grains (at least half for now, and ALL grains must be whole grain rich by July 2014)
- Milk must be 1% or fat-free, flavored milk must be fat-free
There is still plenty of work that needs to be done with respect to school lunches and other food-related sales in public schools. Standards for competitive foods and beverages sold or provided in schools during school hours need to be established. There should also be some control over what is offered through fundraising, concession stands, and school-related events. Massachusetts has adopted new policies around all of these cases and many more.
The USDA’s National School Lunch Program has taken a big step in the right direction. Hopefully we can continue to move forward and generate even greater change over the next several years.