School Food: What’s Happened in 2013

School Food: What’s Happened In 2013

Thu 19 Dec 2013

Story by The Jamie Oliver Food Foundation (USA) Team

Good food at school not only improves children’s health but it has also been shown to improve attainment(1). Schools provide a great opportunity, and have an important role to play, in improving diet and food behaviours of children – after all they do spend most of their waking hours at school each day and can consume up to half (or in some cases more) of their daily calories while at school.

School Lunch

Last year, we saw updates to school food come into play across the US following the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act (2010), with changes mandated to the school lunch program.

This year studies have found that already around 80% of schools believe that they are meeting these new guidelines, which include doubling the amount of fruit and vegetables, more whole grains, less salt and unhealthy fats, and appropriate age-based portions. What’s more, a study by the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods project found that this number should rise to 94%.

However, many schools say that their current kitchen equipment and infrastructure limit their ability to meet such guidelines. Because of this food service staff need more training and are currently making do with less-efficient processes, such as manually chopping or slicing fruits and vegetables rather than using tools and equipment common in other food service operations, or having daily, and more costly, deliveries of fresh produce instead of being able to store it on-site.

So while it is evident that there is still a lot of work to be done, there are a lot of positive changes to school food, and as more schools work out how to meet these guidelines and an emphasis is put on the importance of training, skills and infrastructure, these lessons learned will help guide others.

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) feeds nearly 32 million kids each day and with 17% (12.5 million) kids and adolescents in the US classed as obese, these changes couldn’t come at a more important time.

Competitive Foods

This year big updates have also been made to the regulations around competitive foods available in schools – anything that competes with the school lunch program: vending machines, a la carte lines, school stores etc. In April, proposed updates for these nutritional standards, which had not been updated nationally in 30 years, were released.

In June, these final standards were released and will go into effect in the 2014-2015 school year. The new standards will better address obesity and dietary problems —with limits on calories, saturated and trans fats, salt, and sugars. While sugary sweetened beverages will still be allowed, they must have less than 40 calories per 8 ounces and full calorie soda is no longer permitted. According to the new rule, snacks need to be reasonable, kid-sized portions, generally must have fewer than 200 calories, be low in fat, sodium, and sugar and at a minimum, these foods must fit into these categories:
• Fruit
• Vegetable
• Protein
• Dairy
• Whole grain
Additionally, after a phase-in period, companies won't be able to just fortify snacks with cheap nutrients to qualify them as healthy; all school foods will have to contain actual healthy food ― some fruit, vegetables, whole grains, or another healthy food component.

While some states do already have strong regulations in place for these foods, research by the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project has shown that most U.S. secondary schools do not offer fruits and vegetables in stores, snack bars, or vending machines, but many do sell less-healthy options. Together with the updated school meal regulations, these changes will go a long way to address the obesity epidemic and tackle some of the nutritional shortfalls in children in the U.S. today.

While these big changes have been made possible by changes made at a governmental level, we know that the schools and districts really pioneering the way are down to great leaders. The USDA lists many of the schools meeting these guidelines here and we’ve been hearing stories of many school districts that are doing great work to meet guidelines and improve school food. Check out our Pinterest board here, highlighting some school lunches across the nation.

These improvements in school food can be seen in districts such as the LAUSD, who, since Jamie was there in 2011, have been doing much work to remove flavoured milk and unhealthy items, improve the nutritional content of all school food, and support the local economy at the same time. It’s not always easy for big schools districts such as the LAUSD, which feeds over 680,000 kids per day, so it is great to see positive changes and coalitions such as the ‘Urban School Food Alliance’ come together to work collaboratively to improve school food.

Food Education

In line with these improvements to school food, comes a need for better food education at school. Not only will improved food education and marketing around healthy foods have a positive impact on the uptake and participation of new meals through a ‘whole school’ approach, but it will also equip kids with the skills to make the right choices both in and out of the cafeteria.

That’s why we teamed up with Food Day back in May to launch the ‘Get Food Education in Every School’ campaign and work together to make food education more accessible to kids in schools throughout the nation. This year we aimed to research the current situation and garner support for action. We’ve been extensively researching the programs that exist in schools, whether mandated at a nation level or smaller private hands-on projects and you can see a snapshot of these on this map. We’ve also had over 80 organisations, including the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences, Center for Ecoliteracy, Food Family Farming Foundation and the Edible Schoolyard Project, sign on to the effort this year. Together we’ll work to promote food education and make it more accessible to kids at school.

We believe that food skills are as important as learning to read and write and that just as improved school food has become a priority, so should food education throughout the school day. Together these two elements can have a huge impact on our children’s health, both now and in the future.

The Jamie Oliver Food Foundation (USA) Team

Images: Taken from the CSPI/JOFF (USA) 'School Foods Rule' Pinterest Board

1. Institute for Social and Economic Research


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