Improving school food for student health

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Good nutrition is essential to student health. That means replacing junk food with more fruits, vegetables and meals prepared with nutritious ingredients.

Each year, more than 31 million students receive lunch from the USDA’s National School Lunch Program. It’s critical that the meals students receive from this program are as healthy and wholesome as possible.

Research has shown that high levels of salt, fat and sugar in school lunches have contributed to the nationwide childhood obesity epidemic.* Today, more than one-third of people under age 19 are overweight or obese. About 151,000 have Type 2 diabetes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

In the 2012-2013 school year, the USDA debuted a revamped school lunch menu with higher nutrition standards. The revised standards included smaller portion sizes, twice as many servings of produce and only fat-free or low-fat milk.

This was an important step toward helping our nation’s students eat healthier. HSC advocates for even more progress to support healthy eating in schools:

  • Support higher nutrition standards beyond the National School Lunch Program, such as limiting fast food and unhealthy vending machine options.
  • Offer professional development for food service and teaching staff to promote healthier food options throughout the day.
  • Support access to locally and regionally produced food.

 

 

*DANIEL L. MILLIMET, RUSTY T. CHERNIS AND MUNA HUSAIN. SCHOOL NUTRITION PROGRAMS AND THE INCIDENCE OF CHILDHOOD OBESITY. THE JOURNAL OF HUMAN RESOURCES., 45(3): 640-654 (2010)

What is HSC Doing?

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HSC has made school food a primary focus of its programs and policy recommendations. We have an amazing opportunity to continue building on improvements already made to school food—locally and nationally.

Since 2006, HSC has spearheaded Parents United for Healthy Schools/Padres Unidos para Escuelas Saludables (PUHS), a coalition of parent groups throughout Chicago that focus on school wellness. PUHS has a particular focus on schools with predominantly Latino populations, where rates of diabetes and obesity tend to be higher.

The goal is to teach parents how to be school health advocates and to become voluntary extensions of the school staff. The group has led schools across the Chicago Public School district to adopt school wellness policies that restrict access to competitive foods and challenge parents and school staff to find something other than junk food to serve at school events.

HSC also worked closely with Chicago Public Schools Office of School Health and Wellness to draft the district’s first wellness policy. The policy, which went into effect for the 2012-2013 school year, emphasizes nutrition education and says the following about junk food in schools:

  • School staff must promote non-food rewards to students.
  • Any food brought in for celebrations must meet student health and nutrition standards. Enough cupcakes, already.
  • All foods sold at school from vending machines and school stores, for fundraisers and events have to comply with federal regulations.

HSC has also successfully forged relationships between school districts and local farmers to procure sustainably grown food. These foods are less likely to contain harmful chemicals and pollute the earth because of a lengthy distribution process. In 2011, HSC worked with Chartwells-Thompson, the main food service provider for Chicago Public Schools, to provide antibiotic free chicken from a nearby Amish farmer in Indiana. The deal provides 1.2 million pounds of ABF chicken each year to 473 schools, enough for 305,000 students to eat an ABF chicken meal up to several times a month.

One program highlight for HSC every year is the Cooking up Change contest. HSC gathers students from all over the country and turns them into chefs. Student teams from across the country compete to develop the best healthy recipe for their school lunch menu. The finalists are invited to compete at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C. This contest not only gives students a chance for flex their culinary capabilities, it also gives them an inside look into the challenges of preparing and distributing school food. This understanding has led several students to take on the challenge of lobbying for school food reform.

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