New-utrition Standards for School Meals: Another critical piece of the “Healthy Kids Puzzle”

As a committed Action for Healthy Kids (AFHK) volunteer since the original 2002 Summit in Washington, DC, I was honored to write about the release of the long-awaited USDA Nutrition Standards for school breakfast and lunch on for the February issue of the AFHK Connections newsletter. This is a longer version of that article, which is no longer available one the AFHK site.

The first “re-do” of school meal patterns in many years is designed to align meals served in school cafeterias more closely with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The new patterns do this in several important ways:

  • Requiring more – and greater variety of – vegetables and fruits, as well as more whole grain-rich breads and cereals
  • Making low-fat and fat-free milk the standard for schools (flavored milk must be fat-free)
  • Establishing minimum – and, for the first time, maximum – calorie levels for three different groups of students (K-5, 6-8, 9-12)
  • Setting targets for reducing sodium levels in school meals from 2014 through 2023

While these are the first new school food regulations in over fifteen years, they aren’t news to school nutrition professionals. Dramatic improvements in school meals have been an ongoing process in districts large and small over the past decade. The northern Virginia district where First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced the 2012 Nutrition Standards is an outstanding example of excellence in terms of nutrition and overall wellness.

Under the direction of Penny McConnell, MS, RD, SNS, Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) Food and Nutrition Services, has received numerous awards, including District of Year from the School Nutrition Association in 2010. Serving an astounding 140,000 customers daily, FCPS links cafeterias, classrooms, school gardens, and other local food sources to create a 9-5-2-1-0 Zip Code for Healthy Kids in the “Energy Zone.” The FCPS program clearly recognizes that food and nutrition are just one important aspect of raising a generation of children that is fit, healthy, and ready to succeed.

As the 2012 Nutrition Standards are implemented across the country, there will undoubtedly be many news stories about school nutrition. I believe that it is important for families and health professionals to look beyond the sensational headlines and clever sound bites to learn what is really happening in their local schools. For example, while “pizza-as-a-vegetable” became one more way to bash school meals last fall, dedicated school nutrition directors and cooks (AKA lunch ladies and gentlemen) were serving amazing pies to appreciative kids from coast to coast. Here are some of their “secret” recipes for pizza and veggies:

  • Vegetables on top of pizza: Tomatoes, peppers, onions, zucchini, and even salad! Long Beach schools on Long Island, NY, have their own pizza oven and pizza guy. They serve pizza with unlimited salad greens and encourage kids to put their salad ON their pizza – very trendy and very healthy!
  • Pizza with a side of vegetables: For their 2011 Food Day celebration last October, Foster-Glocester High School in Rhode Island served roasted squash medley with Margherita pizza (topped with fresh, local tomatoes). HEB ISD outside of Dallas, Texas, serves baby carrots and a mini-Caesar salad with a personal pizza featuring whole-grain crust and low-fat cheese.

  • Produce bars with a slice of pizza on the side: From Maine to California, kindergarteners to high school seniors have greater access to fresh, often local, veggies and fruits than ever before. In the Roscommon (Michigan) Elementary school, the only problem they have with the salad bar is keeping it stocked during their busy lunch period.
  • Secret sauces with added veggies: Please don’t tell the students, but lunch ladies can be sneaky nutritionists and they are pumping up pizza sauces with all sorts of vegetables, including fresh local tomatoes and spinach, as well as herbs instead of salt for flavor.

I am in absolute agreement with the First Lady, the Agriculture Secretary, and White House Chef Sam Kass – partnerships will be essential for the successful implementation of the new Nutrition Standards for schools. I believe that we must work together – as school nutrition professionals, school food reformers, school food manufacturers, and school food regulators – so that students have access to the meals they need for strong bodies and sharp minds.

And, we must remember that nutrition is just one piece of the “Healthy Kids Puzzle.” Physical activity, sleep, and even stress reduction are essential for growing children. Fortunately, AFHK programs, like Game On! The Ultimate Wellness Challenge, ReCharge!, and Students Taking Charge, are wonderful resources for schools and communities to use in creating the healthiest possible nutrition and fitness environments for our future.

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