By Leah Chapman
Like many students, lunch was my favorite part of the school day. I still remember the taste of delicious hot ham and cheese, “macho nachos”, chicken patty on a bun, and my personal favorite, rectangle pizza. Although it may have been delicious, the school food that many of us ate while growing up was probably not the healthiest.
However, due largely to Michelle Obama’s efforts, this is no longer the case. In 2010, Mrs. Obama worked with Congress to pass the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), which realigned the nutritional standards of school meals with the most current version of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines. This legislation imposed calorie restrictions, increased the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat milk, and reduced the levels of sodium, saturated fat, and trans fat in school meals. Excitingly, numerous studies have shown that school lunch has become a healthy source of calories for children since the implementation of the HHFKA. One study also found that students are eating more fruits and vegetables due to the updated school lunch standards.
Despite these studies’ results, after the 2016 presidential election, support for the HHFKA diminished. The USDA passed an interim rule in November of 2017 that allows schools to serve foods with more sodium and less whole grains and serve flavored low-fat milk (under the HHFKA, schools were only allowed to serve flavored skim milk or white low-fat milk). The USDA passed these modifications to the HHFKA to address complaints from schools that revenues from school meals were declining due to increased food and equipment costs. Additionally, some students complained that they were not getting enough to eat at lunch due to the HHFKA’s calorie restrictions. Students from one high school even made a YouTube video criticizing the new school meal standards; the video went viral and was featured on prominent news channels such as ABC.
Despite these criticisms, it is imperative that the USDA continues to make nutritional improvements to school lunch. The National School Lunch Program feeds over 30 million children each day; the USDA has a responsibility to align school lunch standards with the U.S. Dietary Guidelines and nourish children with nutritious, high-quality foods. What’s more- about 74% of students who eat school lunch are eligible for free or reduced price lunch; the USDA has an even greater responsibility to nourish our nation’s most vulnerable children.
There are various ways to take action and help keep school lunches healthy. First, support organizations that are working to improve school food, such as FoodCorps, The Whole Kids Foundation, and School Food Matters; subscribe to their newsletters, donate to, or volunteer for these organizations. Second, reach out to your local officials and encourage them to support funding for upgrades or exchanges of school cafeteria equipment, school garden programs, farm to school programs, and nutrition education in schools. Finally, get involved with schools in your community. Volunteer to help with summer meal programs, sit on school wellness committees, or build and maintain school gardens. Who knows- you may even receive a free healthy school lunch for your efforts!
Peer reviewed by Ruixue Hou