Teachable moment: If we want healthier school lunches to succeed, we need to start with the children
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No one working in school nutrition wants to go backward on progress in the cafeteria or take the classroom out of the lunchroom, as some have recently suggested. Actually visiting a school cafeteria provides insight on the improvements made in recent years and show the efforts of school nutrition professionals who are making those healthy changes a reality for the nation's students.

School nutrition professionals have been the catalysts for positive changes, finding ways to do more for students with few additional resources to support the success of updated federal nutrition mandates. From the start of implementation in 2012, only 6 cents in additional per-meal federal reimbursements were provided for each lunch served — with no additional funds provided for school breakfasts to make the healthy changes.

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As Columbia University professor of pediatrics Dr. Michael Rosenbaum recently stated in a criticism of the School Nutrition Association, USDA estimated the standards would cost school districts $1.2 billion in food and labor expenses in fiscal 2015 alone. That equals an additional 10 cents to the cost of preparing each lunch and 27 cents for each breakfast — Rosenbaum did not note that is far more than the 6 cents reimbursed to schools to cover the additional costs.

 

We all can agree it is absolutely a better investment to spend $1.2 billion to support the success of healthy school food initiatives than to spend $200 billion on obesity-related healthcare. However, school meal programs didn't get that investment and program operators have to be fiscally responsible. They cannot carry debt from one school year to the next — any negative balance strips dollars from a school district’s already very limited education fund.

Participation in the National School Lunch Program declined by more than 1 million students per day in 2014. Watching this happen in their cafeterias, members of the School Nutrition Association, who represent school meal professionals and program operators, flagged concerns from the frontlines while maintaining a commitment to strong national nutrition standards. The group's request for meal planning flexibility does not equal a “roll back” of standards on all of the healthy updates to menus, it addresses practical solutions to fix what's not working.

The association advocates to maintain the progress made with healthy whole grain foods that are accepted by students — whole grain breads, rolls, pastas, even pizza crusts that have been popular. Lunchtime in a Texas school cafeteria may show a resistance to whole grain rich tortillas that are perfectly acceptable to students in the Northeast. Brown rice bowls may be a huge hit with many student populations, but not fly on the menus in certain ethnic communities. The guidelines should continue to require whole grains be served but not vilify the consumption of a flour tortilla or white rice on occasion.

Sodium reductions are in place and should remain in place, ensuring that age-appropriate sodium levels are followed for all meals. As students continue learning about new foods and adjusting their taste-buds, school nutrition professionals are utilizing available technical assistance and guidance to provide healthy, lower sodium meals.

But, practical challenges exist. For instance, the naturally occurring sodium in low-fat or fat-free milk or cheese has to be accounted for in school menu planning. There's no interest by cafeteria professionals to provide salt shakers for kids, nor is the intent to create a "junk food emporium" as Rosenbaum suggests.

Keeping a low-fat dressing with an entree salad should be acceptable and in many cases, that innocuous meal won't fit within future sodium reductions. Schools will continue to meet the ambitious initial “Target 1” sodium reductions and await further scientific direction on the viability of the more rigid “Target 2” standards, as recommended by the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine.

The cafeteria is indeed a classroom where school nutrition professionals endeavor each day to expose students to healthy foods that many may never encounter otherwise. Recipes are tweaked to appeal to students of varying taste preferences and cultural or regional influences. School menu planners work to increase the nutritional value of classic kid-favorite meals, slipping in whole grains, legumes or vegetables where they can to familiarize students with new textures and flavors.

Taste-testings and menu samplings teach students about the importance of trying new things and give them a voice in menu planning. Allowing them a voice and opportunity to share feedback is not to be confused with allowing students to dictate a free-for-all of food options — standards must be maintained to ensure all students get the same benefits provided through healthy school meals.

When children repeatedly refuse a certain food at home, parents can decide whether to offer something else or for how long they'll work to convince the child to eat it. School nutrition professionals have been nourishing the 31 million students who eat school lunch for years. They must weigh the same choice in the effort to gain acceptance of healthy options and provide, appealing meals that students will eat — especially for those in greatest need that may otherwise go hungry.

To be successful in fostering lifelong healthy habits, schools must maintain strong nutrition standards and continue nourishing students through the long process of altering their taste preferences.

Providing meal planners with some limited leeway to address the needs of their students isn't at all comparable to allowing students to choose their own curriculum. Unlike requiring students to take a test or providing a bad grade for poor performance, we can't force them to participate in consuming healthy foods. 

 

Patricia Montague is the chief executive officer of School Nutrition Association, a national, nonprofit professional organization representing 57,000 school nutrition professionals across the country. Montague has been with the association for 23 years, serving as chief operating officer for 10 years before becoming CEO in 2013. She is a certified association executive.


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