Making progress on school meals

During our celebration of National School Lunch Week, millions of children will line up in cafeterias across the country to eat school meals. This year, parents should be encouraged that many more schools will be providing healthier options that their children want to eat.

School meals have come a very long way over the years. So believe me when I say that the proposed nutrition standards for school meals put forward by the U.S. Department of Agriculture earlier this year as a result of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act are a vast improvement over the status quo and long overdue. 

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The timing of our proposal could not be more appropriate, particularly as the country faces an epidemic of childhood obesity. Nearly 1 in 3 children are at risk for preventable diseases like diabetes and heart disease due to overweight and obesity. If left unaddressed, health experts tell us that our current generation of children could well have a shorter lifespan than their parents.

Alongside childhood obesity is the problem of childhood hunger. During 2008, as many as 17 million households in the United States, representing 33 million adults and 17 million children, struggled to put enough food on the table. For many of these children, a school meal is the only nutritious source of food they can count on.

As a dedicated mother and grandmother who cares deeply for the health of not just my own family’s children but for the children of families throughout America, these issues greatly concern me. And while government cannot solve this problem alone, it makes good sense that the substantial taxpayer investment in healthy school meals be part of the solution, along with parents and others.

A comprehensive solution will require bold action. We recognized that at USDA several years ago when we asked the Institute of Medicine — a gold standard for scientific analysis — to provide us with their recommendations for what healthy school meals should look like. We used those expert recommendations as the basis for our proposed nutrition standards for healthy school meals.

The result is science-based standards that reflect dietary guidelines by ensuring that children get more of the fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy and whole grains that health experts recommend, and less of the saturated fats, trans fats and sodium that we all should avoid.

Many schools have already embraced this new direction. In fact, 1,250 schools throughout the country have been certified under 

USDA’s HealthierUS Schools Challenge (HUSSC). While the proposed nutrition standards are bold, they are also achievable — so achievable that USDA is committed to certifying 1,000 more HUSSC schools this coming year and another 1,000 the following year.

It is also worth noting that this success is happening in these schools without additional meal reimbursements from the federal government. Surely, if so many HUSSC schools can achieve real progress without extra money, the historic new resources provided through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act should go a long way toward making these improvements a reality for every school that participates in the National School Lunch Program.

That said, we have heard from many interested stakeholders who have voiced both support for and concern about the proposed standards. We have heard the concerns about cost, about feasibility and about specific foods. 

We are listening to everyone and we know that there is still work to do. Given the chance, we will be able to fulfill our commitment to develop science-based nutrition standards that are practical for schools and reinforce the healthy eating habits that begin at home.

We have to stay the course. Change can be challenging. But this change is as important as it is challenging. The stakes are simply too great: School nutrition improvements are an investment in our children’s future. We must not miss this opportunity to provide the nutritious food and promote the healthier lifestyles our children deserve.

Thornton is deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.