October is here. The leaves are starting to change colors. Back to school season is in full swing. In addition to classes and homework, the return to school for many students also means having a reliable source of nutritious meals five days a week. On a typical school day, nearly 30 million students participate in the National School Lunch Program and nearly 15 million take part in the School Breakfast Program, the federally assisted meal programs that operate in most public and nonprofit private schools.
Given the significant number of hours children spend in school, it is not surprising that many consume up to half of their daily calories at school, making school meals an integral part of their diets. For the health and welfare of our next generation, it is absolutely essential that school meals be nutritious and available to students in need across the country.
That is why we feel strongly that Congress must reauthorize our federal child nutrition programs this year in a way that maintains their nutritional integrity and preserves access. As former United States secretaries of agriculture, we know something about feeding kids healthy meals and working across the aisle. School nutrition is historically a solid bipartisan issue. Progress to improve the nutritional quality of school meals has been made during both Republican and Democratic administrations.
During the Bush administration, Congress passed the landmark Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act of 2004, which instructed the United States Department of Agriculture to update the federal school meal nutrition standards based on the dietary guidelines at the time. In turn, the USDA commissioned the Institute of Medicine to provide recommendations for specific nutrition standards that would help children get more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, as well as less salt in school meals.
During the Obama administration, Congress passed the bipartisan Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010, which required the USDA to update federal nutrition standards for school meals and for snacks and beverages sold in schools during the day. The Bipartisan Policy Center issued a report in 2012, “Lots to Lose,” a project that we chaired together. The findings supported full implementation of this law. The USDA then made a sweeping overhaul to the nutrition standards for school meals and snacks, largely consistent with the Institute of Medicine recommendations.
Despite the Trump administration rolling back some aspects of the standards, USDA research shows they are working. The School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study, a nationally representative study released earlier this year, found that after the updated nutrition standards were put in place, school meals became more than 40 percent healthier. Students are now eating more fruits and whole grains at breakfast, and more vegetables and whole grains, and less salt, refined grains, and empty calories at lunch. The study also found that students who participate in the lunch program have a healthier meal than their classmates who do not consume more vegetables, whole grains, and less refined grains and empty calories.
This is significant because research shows nearly one in five children ages two to 19 have obesity, putting them at increased risk for cardiovascular disease, type two diabetes, breathing issues, joint problems, anxiety and depression, and social issues like bullying. As Congress considers reauthorizing these programs, they have the opportunity to ensure nutrition standards for school meals continue to be based on the latest evidence. The school nutrition standards should align with the latest dietary guidelines, without exemptions for specific foods or beverages, including items that may be offered as part of a meal or on their own.
While a large majority of schools have been successful at meeting the existing nutrition standards, additional technical assistance would help those that are struggling and support all schools in continuing to meet standards that are aligned with the latest evidence. About 75 percent of participating students today receive lunches for free or at a reduced price, along with 85 percent of breakfast program participants.
Facilitating access to free and reduced price meals for all students in need is essential for ensuring that they are able to reap the benefits of these nutritious meals and helps avoid “lunch shaming,” where students are shamed or bullied for not having lunch money. We know nutritious school meals are important for the health of our children. Let us continue to work together and reauthorize programs that we know are effective.
Dan Glickman served as agriculture secretary for President Clinton. Ann Veneman served as agriculture secretary for President Bush. They both serve as chairs of the Prevention Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center.