March is National Nutrition Month, and this year, the month-long focus on nutrition coincides with recently proposed school wellness standards featuring the new rollout of breakfast and lunch programs for schools that serve low-income communities. Nationally, the number of low-income children participating in school breakfast for every 100 participating in school lunch was 51.9, an increase from the previous school year. The 2011-2012 school year had marked the first year—an important milestone—that more than half of low-income children who ate school lunch also ate school breakfast.
First Lady Michelle Obama last month announced proposed guidelines for local school wellness policies, such as the importance of foods and beverages marketed to children in schools that are consistent with recently released Smart Snacks in School standards. The Smart Snacks in School nutrition standards support better health for our kids, including more of the foods we should encourage, less of the foods we should avoid, targeted beverage standards allowing variation by age group, flexibility for important traditions, and ample time for implementation.
“The idea here is simple—our classrooms should be healthy places where kids aren’t bombarded with ads for junk food,” said First Lady Michelle Obama. “Because when parents are working hard to teach their kids healthy habits at home, their work shouldn’t be undone by unhealthy messages at school.”
The Food and Nutrition Service administers several programs that provide healthy food to children, including the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, the Child and Adult Care Food Program, the Summer Food Service Program, the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, and the Special Milk Program. Administered by state agencies, each of these programs helps fight hunger and obesity by reimbursing schools, childcare centers, and after-school programs for providing healthy meals to children.
“The food marketing and local wellness standards proposed today support better health for our kids and echo the good work already taking place at home and in schools across the country. The new standards ensure that schools remain a safe place where kids can learn and where the school environment promotes healthy choices. USDA is committed to working closely with students, parents, school stakeholders and the food and beverage industries to implement the new guidelines and make the healthy choice, the easy choice for America’s young people,” says U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
USDA guidelines require that schools offer five components in each lunch: fruit, vegetables, grain, protein, and milk. It’s a big—and often challenging—job to get kids to eat right. For nine months of the year, most families trust the school district to provide a noon meal that will get kids through the second half of the day. Like parents, food service workers struggle with trade-offs and compromises. If kids won’t eat a certain food, the nutritional value matters little. These policies help ensure that the hard work parents are doing at home to teach their kids healthy habits will not be undone by unhealthy messages at school. It’s also part of a larger effort started last fall, when the First Lady called on companies to reduce their marketing of unhealthy products to kids and increase the marketing of healthy products to get kids excited about eating more nutritious food.
Schools should be places where students can focus on their work and not be inundated with ads for unhealthy products. Since launching the Let’s Move! initiative, the First Lady has worked to ensure that the school environment is one that supports that health. With these announcements and the initiatives launched over the past four years, healthy school environments are becoming the new norm. Her message is starting to take hold, but we can do more. This month, as we dedicate an entire month to nutrition, let’s help spread the word about the importance of healthy school lunches.