What mom doesn't want to raise children with healthy eating habits? But not every parent has the resources or knowledge to provide healthy foods and teach good nutrition. That's where the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act comes in.
That law, passed by Congress in 2010 and recently extended, requires schools participating in the National School Lunch Program to offer more nutritious lunches.
Though some legislators and school nutritionists argue that the laws are too restrictive and costly, recent studies show the program is working. Kids are eating healthier school lunches. And the childhood obesity rate is dropping (although overweight and obesity remain high among children and adults in the United States).
There was some talk this year that the act might be ended or weakened, but the program was financed, with an increase in funding, for 2016. That increase may make it easier for schools to offer healthier choices, with more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
And that's good news for us moms. If our children get healthier choices at school, they will acquire a taste for those foods, and they'll likely make smarter food choices throughout their lives.
While I will admit to having the occasional box of sugary cereal in the house when my kids were young, my husband and I always tried to emphasize home-cooked meals, with few processed foods and plenty of fresh produce and whole grains.
Our kids grew up loving all kinds of fruits, vegetables and whole grains and still generally prefer a fresh pear to pudding and whole-grain bread to white bread. Unlike a couple of our former presidents, they love broccoli and do not consider ketchup a vegetable. They enjoy good, healthy food, which helps them maintain a healthy weight.
The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act attempts to help all families achieve that—and it appears to be working. Initially, some school nutritionists argued that kids wouldn't buy school lunches if they couldn't get their favorite white dinner rolls (who doesn't remember those fondly?) or hamburger on a white bun or pizza on a white-flour crust.
Last October, the School Nutrition Association and the School Superintendents Association wrote to Congress complaining that schools did not get enough funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to cover the increased costs associated with the new standards. The recently approved $625 million increase in funding for the Child Nutrition Program should help.
The nutrition group also requested changes they argued would improve meal participation rates, such as relaxing the whole-grain requirement. This year's congressional action again extends exemptions to schools demonstrating a hardship from the whole-grain standards and holds off on further tightening of salt restrictions until more research is available.
While political and nutritional debates continue, school lunches are getting healthier. In a four-year study at three middle schools and three high schools in an urban school district in Washington state, researchers from the University of Washington's Nutritional Sciences Program found a significant increase in the nutritional quality of foods served. They also found a decrease in the energy density of the foods, meaning the items overall have fewer calories per gram and, thus, are less fattening.
"We found that the implementation of the new meal standards was associated with the improved nutritional quality of meals selected by students," said study author Donna Johnson in a HealthDay article.
In a report published Jan. 4 in JAMA Pediatrics, Johnson and her colleagues wrote, "These changes appeared to be driven primarily by the increase in variety, portion size and the number of servings of fruits and vegetables."
So, are kids eating these healthier meals?
Nationwide there has been an overall decrease in kids buying school lunches, but that trend began in 2007-2008, before the new standards were adopted. The decline was primarily among kids who paid for school lunches, rather than those who qualified for free lunches, indicating the drop-off was likely linked to the recession, rather than nutrition, according to a report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
In the Washington state study, meal participation stayed about the same, declining only slightly from 47 percent before the updated guidelines to 46 percent after the changes took effect in the 2012-2013 school year. The researchers noted that their study only looked at what foods the students selected—not necessarily what they ate.
However, another study found that the amount of plate waste has not changed since meal changes were introduced. If more healthy foods are on the plate and plate waste hasn't increased, then kids are probably eating more healthy foods, Johnson said.
Most of us are still learning about nutrition and making adjustments in our diets. The answer may not lie in total banishment of white flour or counting grams of salt and sugar. It may be more of an overall approach to eating moderate portions and including more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins in our diets. The newly released Dietary Guidelines for Americans offer this sort of balanced approach to a healthy diet.
Similarly, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act encourages schools to provide more nutritious lunches to more than 31 million students a day. That's a good education. The habits our kids learn when they're young can help them live longer, healthier lives. And that's what we all want for our children.
Share your tips below for encouraging kids to eat healthy, whether at school or at home.