This is National School Lunch Week 2016, as proclaimed by President Obama, a time to reflect on the positive steps our nation has taken to make nutrition a priority in every U.S. school. This also coincides with the month-long celebration of Farm to School Month, which recognizes efforts to bring local foods into schools and onto students’ trays.
The more than 50 million children who attend schools that participate in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs are experiencing school environments that are healthier than ever. These students have access to balanced meals that reflect the latest nutrition science in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans as well as recommendations from pediatricians and National Academy of Medicine. The meals feature more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and low-fat milk. Many of these items can be locally-sourced through farm to school programs.
The fresh, local foods offered through farm to school programs help school meal programs provide healthy, appealing, and diverse offerings. Results of the 2015 USDA Farm to School Census show that more than 42,000 schools nationwide have a farm to school program. These schools report reductions in food waste, higher school meal participation rates, and increased willingness of the students to try new foods, notably fruits and vegetables. In the 2013-14 school year alone, these programs invested nearly $800 million back into local economies, helping 23.6 million students develop healthy eating habits and learn where their food comes from.
Building on the progress around the country, this summer, USDA issued two additional final rules: Smart Snacks in Schools and Local School Wellness Policy. For the last few years, schools have been serving breakfasts and lunches that meet the updated standards under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010; in fact, more than 99 percent of schools nationwide currently report meeting those new nutrition standards. The recent regulations put in place by the Smart Snacks in Schools Final Rule and Local School Wellness Policy Final Rule take healthy school environments one step further by holding snacks served in schools and food or beverage marketing students are exposed to during the school day to standards that are consistent with those for school meals.
Healthy school meals are particularly important for the more than 13 million U.S. children who live in food insecure households; for some, school meals may be all nutrition they receive in a day. To help reduce hunger, USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), an optional cost-sharing partnership between the federal government and school districts in high-poverty areas, allows eligible schools in lower income areas to serve nutritious lunches and breakfasts to all students at no cost. Not only does CEP help break down barriers that can prevent children in need from accessing school meals, it also greatly reduces the administrative burden on schools and families. Close to 8.5 million students from more than 18,000 schools across the country participated in the program in school year 2015-16.