Having worked in the sustainable food arena for 15 years, I’ve watched national interest in local food grow, U.S. Department of Agriculture organics regulations pass, and healthier school food standards enacted. We’ve come a long way in 15 years, but as I look back on this progress and forward to new developments in sustainable food, I’m reminded that we must continue to fight for the ground we have gained.
Healthy school food for all children could be on the congressional chopping block this fall, which would be disastrous for the millions of children who rely on the nutritious meals they eat at school. With the Child Nutrition Reauthorization fast approaching, and powerful lobbying groups like the School Nutrition Association (SNA) asking Congress to weaken key nutrition standards for our school children, it's time for our community to take action.
Why is Healthy School Food So Important?
We are facing a national health crisis that is directly linked to our diets, and staying committed to nutritious school food is key to combating this epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control reports that one in three of our nation’s children are overweight or obese, and the American Heart Association notes that this generation of children will have shorter life expectancies than their parents due primarily to diet-related disease. School food is a crucial part of the solution. More than 30 million children eat school lunch every day, and over 13 million children eat school breakfast, and for many low-income students it is their only access to nutritious meals.
How is Healthy School Food in Jeopardy?
Every five years, Congress reviews and must reauthorize the Childhood Nutrition Act, which governs national school food and other childhood nutrition programs. The current iteration of the act is the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), which will expire on September 30, 2015.
The HHFKA was the most progressive nutrition legislation passed since the 1970s. It expanded the availability of nutritious meals and snacks to more children and improved the nutritional quality of food served in schools and preschool. Current nutritional standards require schools to serve more fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. The legislation also instituted calorie maximums by age group and sodium reductions.
Given the current climate in Congress, the lobbying forces of food corporations, and recent media attention on topics such as food waste, we can expect to see significant efforts to roll back the progress made by the HHFKA. Some changes that are already being requested of Congress are:
Eliminating the requirement that every student take a serving of fruit or vegetable with every school meal
Eliminating the requirement that all grains be whole-grain rich and maintaining the requirement that half of grains be whole-grain rich
Halting further sodium reductions
Allowing school meal items to be sold as a la carte items at any time, so kids could buy pizza and nachos every day instead of eating balanced meals
What We Can Do
The nutrition regulations may not be perfect, but they are a step in the right direction towards healthier food for all schoolchildren. Rolling them back would give schools license to return to serving highly processed, nutritionally empty meals. If you think that our country should stand strong in our commitment to serving healthy food at school, then speak out. You can make a big difference in how Congress addresses these concerns by writing a letter to your congressional representative. The Chef Ann Foundation has a template you can use, along with instructions on how to contact the appropriate representative.
Sincere, personal letters are one of the most effective ways Americans have of influencing lawmakers. If we all stand together and do one thing to support healthy eating in schools, we can and will influence how Congress votes on this issue in September. So, will you stand with us and raise your voice for healthy school food?