By Johanna Bishop, MS, RDN
School lunch often gets an unfair bad reputation. Some students have gone as far as creating YouTube videos to share their frustrations. New rules from the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA) implemented more nutritious standards, developed from science- and evidence-based research. Requirements such as including a fruit or vegetable at every meal, but sometimes students left lunch still wanting more. The specifics of a reimbursable lunch meal are not so simple, but it must include a minimum of one fruit or vegetable, and two of the following: milk, meat/meat alternate, or whole grain. The new requirements limited the types of milk to either low-fat white milk, or flavored skim milks. One could spend days sorting out the nitty-gritty of the meal pattern requirements. But the National School Lunch program is more than just skim milk and sodium restriction.
The Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 shook up the school lunch program. The changes are more complicated than the public realizes and involve more than just school lunch. What often gets missed were the improvements beyond what was offered in the lunch line. All schools that participate in the NSL must also have a Local School Wellness Policy (LSWP). The final ruling for this additional component was finalized on July 21. 2016. While the implementation is up for interpretation, each LSWP must have certain components, including specific goals for nutrition education and physical activity, standards for ALL foods and beverages sold or provided to students, policies for food and beverage marketing, wellness leadership, and public involvement.
To help school districts meet these requirements, state departments of education provide examples, as well as numerous non-profit organizations, such as Alliance for a Healthier Generation and Action for Healthy Kids. Alliance for a Healthier Generation provides trainings, workbooks and personal advisors to help school districts develop a robust and realistic LSWP.
The NSLP covers the nutritional requirement, but the health and wellness of students extends beyond a meal. The LSWP must address other foods available throughout the school day. These components push the school district to think about the health of the students beyond the lunch tray. By including nutrition education and physical activity, it encourages school districts to invest time and resources into the physical and mental well-being of students, while also complying with national and state educational standards.
While it may seem like common sense, students do better after a physical activity break and thrive under nutrient-rich foods. Instead of fighting these “interruptions” to classroom time, schools would be wise to use these resources to their advantage. Incorporating 5 minute brain-breaks can help a student focus better on the lesson. Offering Breakfast in the Classroom not only improves attendance rates, but can result in higher test scores! School districts would benefit from putting all of the tools in the toolbox to use. The LSWP isn’t ‘yet another thing to do’, but a plan to help students’ succeed.
No matter what the research says and how many times the benefits are stated, at the end of the day, that’s not what matters. Healthy students make for better students. Jon Cooney, the principal at Bella Romero Academy in Greeley-Evans School District 6 says, “We don’t include student wellness components in our school for the test scores, we do it because it’s the right thing to do for our students.”
Peer-edited by Ashley Aguillard
The author of this article is Johanna Bishop, MS, RDN who works as a Wellness Specialist at Greeley-Evans School District 6 in Colorado.