By Amanda Litvinov
It’s National School Lunch Week!
If those words conjure images of fatty pizza slices and greasy piles of tater tots (with a side of ketchup posing as a vegetable), you haven’t seen a school meal recently.
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“We’re serving more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in every meal,” explained Roselyn Green, a cafeteria bookkeeper at Lester Elementary School in Florence, South Carolina, who checks thousands of trays every week to make sure kids have selected meals that meet new USDA standards.
For the first time in more than 15 years, significant upgrades to the nutrition standards for school lunches went into effect this July as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, bringing healthier meals to nearly 32 million children who eat lunch in public school cafeterias every weekday.
Food service workers like Green report that even in the first few months of school, kids are already warming to new menus that include many foods they’ve never tried or don’t eat regularly. But some lawmakers on Capitol Hill are ready to go to battle to overturn the new restrictions on calories, sodium and saturated fat.
Hear Roselyn Green talk more about her career serving students and parents.
Championed by the Obama administration as part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign to solve childhood obesity, the act passed unanimously in 2010 with the full support of organizations like NEA and the NEA Health Information Network. Nearly one in every three of America’s children is overweight or obese, putting them at risk for preventable diseases like type 2 diabetes.
“The National Education Association believes when it comes to the health of America’s youth, it’s best to think of exercise and nutrition as different sides of the same coin,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “Students need both to perform well in school and develop healthy lifestyles that will serve them for the rest of their lives.
In addition to setting much higher nutrition benchmarks for school meals and increasing the reimbursement rate for schools that meet those guidelines, the bill makes school meals available to more low-income children, sets nutrition standards for snacks and beverages sold in schools, helps communities establish local farm-to-school networks and create school gardens and expands access to drinking water. It also provides training for school food service workers.
“Let’s face it—it’s hard to get kids who are used to eating McDonald’s every day to eat fruits and vegetables, but we’re doing it,” said Green. “We’re making brown rice instead of white, baked chicken instead of fried, and whole wheat bread instead of white. At first that didn’t go over well, but now they’re actually enjoying the whole wheat bread. It’s growing on them.”
Many experts say a child may need to taste a new food 10 to 15 times before they acquire a taste for it, and the first hurdle is always getting them to try it. That’s something cafeteria professionals know all too well.
“At our school, the cafeteria staff and the teachers encourage students to take one bite, just one little bite,” said Green. “Most of the elementary kids will try it if they are asked, because they want you to listen to their opinions about it.”
Their biggest triumph? Students now look forward to spinach salad, which took a little recipe tweak and a creative marketing device. Adding just a few mandarin oranges made for a more kid-friendly salad that surged in popularity after staff hung a picture of Popeye with a reminder that you have to eat your spinach to grow up big and strong.
Every positive step is particularly meaningful to Green, who knows that some of her students aren’t getting healthy foods at home—if they get any food at all. “I know that for some of my students, this is all they’re going to eat until they come back to school the next day,” she said.
If only lawmakers working to undo the new guidelines had that on-the-ground perspective, they might realize just what these healthier school meals mean for struggling families and the growing children who are learning healthy eating habits.
Not only did House Republicans attempt to repeal the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2011, last month, Reps. Steve King (R-IA) and Tim Huelskamp (R-KS) introduced the No Hungry Kids Act. But their complaints that the USDA calorie limits are too low are refuted by current nutritional science and many advocacy groups (check out these fact sheets and infographics from the Center for Science in the Public that dispel the myths about the new school meals).
Food service staff and educators, meanwhile, eagerly await the next provision of the act: guidelines around school snacks and beverages. Without those guidelines, students who refuse healthier foods can continue load up on empty calories and sugar-laden beverages sold in vending machines, a la carte lines and school cafes or stores.
Until then, Green and her colleagues are busy figuring out just the right preparation for bean salad.
“So far that hasn’t gone over too well,” said Green. “But we’re still working on it.”