By Amanda Litvinov
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A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics shows that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFK) has achieved exactly what was intended when Congress passed it in 2010: It has improved the nutritional quality of school lunches.
A team of researchers from the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington in Seattle studied meal records from an urban district between 2011 and 2014. By analyzing levels of iron, calcium, fiber, protein and vitamins A and C, they determined that school lunches are now nearly 30 percent healthier.
That dramatic improvement was brought about by nutrition guidelines phased in between 2012 and 2014 requiring schools to serve meals with fewer calories, less sodium and sugar, and more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
But many educators and parents are now concerned that Congress might lower the law’s nutrition standards, despite all the research showing that proper nutrition helps students concentrate on learning and reduces disciplinary issues.
School food service professionals like New Jersey’s Pat Lieberman hope that members of Congress stop to think about what it would mean for student health if they roll back the nutrition standards during the reauthorization of HHFK that is currently under way.
“I wish I could say to them, ‘Follow me around for a day to see what we do and what the kids like and how these standards are setting higher expectations for our kids’ diets,’” said Lieberman, who has 19 years of experience.
As nutrition guidelines were implemented, school food service professionals have worked to help the students they serve try selections like spinach salad and whole grain rolls, which replaced heavily processed and fried foods.
Donna West, a cafeteria manager at Brownwood Elementary School in Scottsboro, Alabama, says bringing healthier foods to the school cafeteria hasn’t always been easy, but it’s definitely the right thing to do for students.
“Many families in this country cannot afford fresh fruits as a healthy snack alternative,” West wrote recently. “So the introduction of fruits and vegetables at school is key to helping students make the connection between a healthy snack and one that has no nutritional value.”
The federal school meals programs serve roughly 32 million kids each day.
For some children, the meals they receive at school are the most nutritious they eat all day. For others, it may be the only food they eat that day. Over 50 percent of children attending U.S. public schools come from low-income families for the first time in recent history.
The research from the University of Washington builds on a 2014 study by the Harvard School of Public Health that found that children’s consumption of fruits and vegetables increased significantly following HHFK’s passage. That report also debunked claims that the new rules have led to more wasted food because children are rejecting the healthier options.