How America’s schools have limited access to nutritious foods
By Elizabeth Stoltz
Between lunches and breakfasts, vending machine snacks, bake sales and birthday party treats, schools play a major role in shaping a child’s diet.
While many schools have increased efforts to serve healthier alternatives, significant changes are still needed to increase the prevalence of fresher meals and snacks during the school day.
Many public health experts claim that due to current dietary trends, today’s children will live 10 years shorter than their parents. Obesity rates among children, which have tripled since 1980, are at an epidemic level.
“While schools aren’t responsible for creating this health crisis, schools should be places where we should expect kids to receive a healthy meal,” said Amie Hamlin, executive director of the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food.
Because inadequate nutrition impacts a child’s cognitive ability, memory, concentration and behavior, its detrimental effects can be felt in both the cafeteria and classroom. By improving childhood nutrition, students’ performance and health will improve. Before attempting to fill children’s minds, we must ensure that their stomachs are healthily filled.
“When your body works well, your brain works well,” said Meg Wolff, an expert on health and nutrition at The Huffington Post.
A National Priority
While all students are guaranteed access to a meal during the school day through the federally funded National School Lunch Program, not all students are guaranteed access to health-enhancing foods at school. Created in 1946 to provide students with free, reduced or full-price lunches, the NSLP now feeds more than 30 million children. To receive federal reimbursement for school lunches, participating schools are required to implement a wellness program and serve meals that meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Although the NSLP ensures that children don’t go hungry at school, it is not without its problems. When the program was first introduced, the food industry quickly took advantage of the opportunity to influence nutrition guidelines. Today, nutrition advocates, U.S. agricultural commodities and the commercial food industry compete to influence the NSLP’s regulations.
Historically, agricultural and commercial food industries’ priorities have trumped nutrition advocates. Because of restricted government funding, many schools were forced to rely on prepackaged commercial foods. Even within the prescribed nutrition guidelines, a lunch consisting of chicken nuggets, tater tots, canned fruit and chocolate milk is still permissible. Furthermore, because students can opt out of selecting two food items from each meal, many consume a nutritionally unbalanced meal.
Despite its regulations, the United States Department of Agriculture reports that less than 2 percent of students eat in accordance with the U.S. Dietary Guidelines daily. Only half of school-age children consume a serving of fruit daily, and the majority of children’s vegetable intake is fried.
Because the USDA is tasked with educating the public on nutrition and promoting U.S. agricultural products, it’s stuck in a conflicting role. U.S. agricultural products, like refined grains, dairy and meat, are not the most nutritious food options.
Hamlin said, “It’s difficult to understand how our tax dollars are being used to fight obesity, yet they are also being used to subsidize unhealthy foods.” Because U.S. agricultural products are heavily subsidized, nutritional quality can take a backseat to price. While schools are facing even greater funding cuts, school nutrition services are challenged to serve fresher, healthier meals.
While the NSLP has played a critical role in guaranteeing that children don’t go hungry at school, reform is also needed to ensure that children’s long-term health is the program’s top priority. As Janet Poppendieck writes in her book Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, “The wellbeing of children has always had to compete with other agendas: the disposal of farm commodities or the maintenance of segregation or the reduction of the federal budget deficit. It’s time to see what we can do if we put children first.”
The Challenge of Choice
A la carte lines and “competitive food” sources also challenge equitable access to healthy food in schools. These food sources typically make foods like baked goods, salty snacks, sports drinks and soda available for student purchase. Under federal regulations, competitive food sources, such as vending machines and school stores, can’t be accessed during mealtime, but this policy is often unenforced. On the contrary, a la carte items can be purchased during lunchtime.
While many schools place stricter stipulations on access to these foods on campus, many do not. These foods are often significantly lower in nutritional value and compete with hot meals. Students may not have consistent access to fresh produce at school, but many can choose to purchase a soda or bag of chips daily. Not only can these food sources promote unhealthy eating, but they can also create a social stratification, as many students can’t afford to purchase such foods.
“School should be a place where all children are equal,” Hamlin said. “Food should be available equally for everyone, and thus competitive and a la carte foods present not only a health problem but an equity problem, too.”
Providing access to unhealthy food items also undermines parents’ and school’s efforts to promote healthy nutrition and sends students mixed messages. Although they may be taught to eat healthily, both Wolff and Hamlin agree that this dietary hypocrisy is not lost on students. Wolff claims that selling junk food in school “sends a message that these things are OK to be eating.”
To reinforce positive eating habits, removing unhealthy a la carte and competitive food choices will, in theory, encourage students to eat a hot, nutritious lunch funded by the school meal program.
Serving healthy foods in school is not an insurmountable task. Across the country, schools have taken tremendous steps to increase access to nutritious foods. Nationally, the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act undergoes revisions every five years. The proposed guidelines include updating NSLP to meet the most recent nutrition science findings, increasing access to fruits, vegetables and whole grains, replacing whole and two-percent milk with fat-free and low-fat milk products and enhancing schools’ nutrition education programs. Through these proposed changes, the USDA seeks to place greater emphasis on a food item’s vitamin, mineral, energy and macronutrient content. The USDA hopes that these new proposals will be adopted to improve the health of our nation’s children.
A Local Look
Locally, NYCHSF worked with Ithaca’s Beverly J. Martin Elementary School and implemented a pilot version of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Snack Program from 2008-10, which continues today. For less than $1 a day per student, this program provides children with fresh snacks like watermelon, cucumbers and pomegranates. The program’s goal to increase fruit and veggie consumption by at least two servings a day was successfully met.
In a video produced by NYCHSF, one young participant expressed his excitement with the program, saying, “It’s really cool that I get to eat them [fruits and vegetables] because I don’t really eat them that often. So, I eat them at school, and I feel really, really fast and strong.”
Denise Gomber, the school’s principal, also said in the video, “When it comes to quality food and wellness, just nationally it’s a huge inequity, and there’s haves and have-nots. That has been eliminated at our school, and that is a great feeling.”
Many New York City public schools have also transformed their lunch menu. According to an article published in The New York Times, students in these schools can opt for fresh fruit, whole grain pasta and salad bar offerings. The school system pressured food vendors to eliminate unhealthy ingredients from prepared foods while lowering costs.
Sometimes, increasing access to healthy foods can simply be a matter of moving fresh fruits and vegetables within students’ reach in the lunch line rather than cookies or salty snacks. A Cornell University-based nutrition initiative, “Smarter Lunchrooms,” experimented with improving the appeal of healthy foods to students through innovative, inexpensive marketing. By simply placing fruit in attractive bowls within student reach, the amount of students who chose to add a piece of fruit to their meal increased by nearly 200 percent. The research group also found success in renaming food items, like “Bean Burrito” to “Big Bad Bean Burrito.”
To improve access to healthy foods locally, we can advocate for farm-to-school programs and more fresh produce, whole grains and plant-based entrees at schools. Schools can increase nutrition programming and create an environment that supports healthy eating by replacing high fat, sodium and sugar vending machine foods with fresher, healthier alternatives. Federal funding must also increase to match increasing regulation of healthy food at schools. We need to provide students and their families with accurate, unbiased information about nutrition.
To increase a child’s success both in and outside of the classroom, schools must make access to healthy food a priority. Upon signing the School Lunch Act in 1946, President Harry S. Truman wisely observed, “No nation is any healthier than its children.” An investment in healthy, fresh food is an investment in our future.
Elizabeth Stoltz is a sophomore IMC major whose school lunch menu would include lots of veggies—hold the tater tots. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.