Magazine article The Nation's Health

Schools Making Progress on New US Nutrition Standards: Vegetable Consumption Up 16 Percent

Magazine article The Nation's Health

Schools Making Progress on New US Nutrition Standards: Vegetable Consumption Up 16 Percent

Article excerpt

IN THE CAFETERIAS of the Boulder Valley School District, chicken nuggets, tater tots and flavored milk are no longer standard fare. In fact, they have been completely scrapped from the menu.

Instead, students in the Colorado school district get to choose among items such as chicken potstickers, green chile and cheese tamales, organic pork ribs, sweet potato chips, veggie burgers, sweet and sour tofu and unlimited servings from the salad bar. In the district's elementary and middle schools, a la carte items have been eliminated, with the exception of juice and soy milk.

"As far as I'm concerned, we're in the business of feeding kids real, whole meals," said Ann Cooper, CEC, director of food services for the Boulder Valley School District, which serves about 11,000 meals per day. "Food literacy needs to be seen in schools as just as important as academics."

The menu changes in Boulder Valley began about five years ago, a few years before the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued its new nutrition standards for school meals. The jumpstart meant the school district was ahead of the game when it came to the workforce training, infrastructure and equipment changes necessary to meet the new standards. But the real game-changer was engaging students in the healthy transition. To do that, Cooper and her colleagues organize hundreds of events each school year, from taste testing to cooking competitions. And the efforts have paid off: Student participation in the school meal program is up 7 percent from last year, Cooper told The Nation's Health.

"If you're expecting kids in high school who spent 10 years thinking that chicken nuggets is a food group to all of a sudden embrace salad bars...it won't happen without education and time," she said. "We didn't get to be a society of obese children overnight and we won't turn it around overnight."

Thanks to the new federal school meal nutrition standards, Boulder Valley is no longer the exception to the rule. With the start of the 2013-2014 school year, USDA reported that the vast majority of schools are successfully meeting new nutrition guidelines for school meals. While many schools had begun moving toward healthier fare on their own, the 2010 passage of the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act set a course for the first national update of school meal standards in more than 15 years and authorized increased federal reimbursement to schools districts that comply with the new standards.

USDA's new nutrition standards, which were released in 2012, call on schools to offer more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, to serve only fat-free and low-fat milk, eliminate trans fats, and place limits on calories and sodium. With more than 31 million children participating in the National School Lunch Program every school day and a childhood obesity rate that has nearly tripled in the last 40 years, health and nutrition advocates hailed the new standards. Today, nearly 90 percent of schools are meeting the new nutrition standards, and only 0.15 percent of schools have cited the nutrition standards as a reason they left the National School Lunch Program.

Still, many schools could meet the new meal standards more effectively and at less cost if they had updated equipment and infrastructure, said Jessica Donze Black, MPH, RD, director of the Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods Project at the Pew Charitable Trusts during a March 20 USDA news conference. In surveying schools nationwide, Black and her colleagues found that 88 percent of school districts needed at least one piece of kitchen equipment and 55 percent needed kitchen infrastructure changes. For example, in Alabama, 40 percent of school districts said they needed walk-in freezers and 39 percent needed more electrical capacity.

However, many of the top equipment needs cost less than $2,000, "so this is a solvable problem," Black said. During the news conference, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack noted that the agency announced $11 million in school equipment grants in December and that President Barack Obama's fiscal year 2015 budget proposal includes $35 million in school kitchen equipment grants. …

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