Will New Grants Take a Bite Out of School Lunch Problems?

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/usdagov/

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/usdagov/

Schools need proper funding to ensure children are provided with healthy lunches and breakfasts. With this in mind, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced $5.5 million in new grants on March 12. ”These grants are part of USDA’s ongoing commitment to give states and schools the additional resources and flexibility they need as they help make the healthy choice, the easy choice for America’s young people,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a press release.

The nutritional standards for school foods changed under the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The alterations were the first in fifteen years and were pushed for by First Lady Michelle Obama. Under the new provisions, what schools could and could not serve was updated to reflect current nutritional research. This has not been without controversy, as schools have complained that quotas were too restrictive, leading healthy options – like sandwiches – to be banned. New rules have fixed most of these issues.

According to the press release, 90 percent of schools are compliant with the new standards. This means they are serving more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and lowfat dairy products during meals. At the same time, the meals are reducing sodium and fat content. In order to stay on this track, the grant money will go toward implementing Smarter Lunchrooms strategies across the country.

Smarter Lunchrooms is a partially funded by the USDA. The movement was started by the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Program and is centered on finding low or no-cost ways to get children to make healthier choices. This is done through evidenced-based strategies.

For example, Smarter Lunchrooms highlights that simple changes — like repositioning fruit or highlighting entrees on a display board — have been shown to increase sales of those items. Through small alterations, the organization hopes to promote nutrition for children in schools. “Strategies like Smarter Lunchrooms give schools simple, actionable, low-cost steps that help make sure that the healthy food on kids’ plates ends up in their stomachs,” Vilsack said.

Described as a toolkit, the USDA hopes this will help implement the broad goals of the 2010 act. This will be needed, because despite progress, there are still hurdles for the USDA to surmount when it comes to providing healthy in-school options. A report by the Government Accountability Office assessed participation and trends in school lunch programs.

What it found was that there was a 3.7 percent decline in participation (1.2 million students) between the 2010-2011 and 2012-2013 school years. When state and local officials were asked for input, they said the change to nutritional standards was among the reasons the rate declined. There was an increase in food wasted during the day because students threw it away, in addition to the program being difficult to implement. As a result, the report suggests that the USDA address food waste and create a system the fosters greater transparency.

The program has largely been touted as a success by the first lady, and efforts have been underway to expand options. In conjunction with the fourth anniversary of the Let’s Move campaign, Michelle Obama announced that starting “July 1, 2014, more than 22,000 schools across the country — which serve primarily low-income students — will be eligible to serve healthy free lunches and breakfasts to all students.” Along with new resources like those from the Smarter Lunchrooms toolkit, the goal is to continue reducing childhood obesity, thus creating a healthier generation.

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