The classroom. The computer lab. The cafeteria.

When it comes to inspiring learning and preparing kids for the future, which one doesn’t seem to quite belong? At first glance, the easy answer may appear to be the cafeteria.

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Then again, consider how critically important nutrition and health are to students’ success and growth and it’s clear that the cafeteria really does belong in that group.

In 2010, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, a law that ushered in the first updates to nutrition standards for school meals in 15 years. The standards took effect in 2012. More fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are in; excess saturated fat, added sugar, and sodium are out.

A growing body of research shows that the standards are working and students are eating healthier at school. The latest evidence can be found in my home state of Washington.

From January 2011 to January 2014, researchers from the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington analyzed school meal selections made by students at three middle and three high schools in the Renton School District. Covering 7,200 students and 1.7 million meals over nearly three years, this is one of the largest and most comprehensive studies to date to examine the impact of the updated standards.

The results were an unqualified success. After the updated standards were implemented, the nutritional quality of foods chosen by students in our schools dramatically improved—students took lunches that provided more Vitamin A, more Vitamin C, and fewer calories per gram. Students’ healthier choices were driven primarily by the increased amount and variety of fruits and vegetables we offered. And student participation in the school meals program held steady post-implementation.  

Why is this so important?

Many students consume up to half of their daily calories at school. In our district especially—where more than half of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals—nutritious foods truly make a difference for students’ health.

Encouraging and empowering kids to eat well not only helps them be better prepared to learn, it also helps them establish healthy habits that can last a lifetime. At Renton, we’ve incorporated our healthier meals into a broader nutrition education focus. We partner with farmers across the state to bring fresh, local products into the cafeteria; our nutrition service team even visits the farms, learning about the local crops and potential ways to incorporate them into menus. We transformed our cafeteria walls and menu boards with bright pictures of fresh produce and fun facts about the food on the menu to get kids excited about the new offerings. We run taste tests so the kids can tell us what they’d prefer to see on the menu—this lets them be a part of the process and gives them a voice and sense of ownership over the menu.

As Congress prepares to renew the standards and increase critical funding to help schools update and modernize their kitchens, we need to remain committed to the progress that has been made to strengthen the nutritional integrity of our meal programs and be resolute in encouraging, educating and modeling healthful eating habits for our students.  Our goal is to meet the demands of an ever increasing food savvy student customer base while building upon the progress we’ve made in implementing healthier meal options in both Renton and across the nation. We aim to provide all students the opportunity to have access to the very best in school, from the classroom to the cafeteria. 

Mann, RD SNS, is the director of nutrition services for the Renton School District in Renton, Washington.