Back to school time brings new experiences: new teachers, new friends, new books, and sometimes a new school. This year, students will add a new change to their back-to-school routine: healthier meals served during school breakfast and lunch. It’s a great development, for students, teachers, and parents alike.
Sweeping new school meal guidelines take effect this year. It means fresher, better tasting food and nutrition standards that reflect the latest science about what it takes to be healthy. It’s not a moment too soon.
According to a recent study by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, obesity rates among California’s fifth, seventh and ninth graders is approaching 40 percent. Add to that the fact that obesity rates have increased four-fold since 1980, and you have more than a problem. You have an epidemic.
However, that all changes this year.
When kids head to the cafeteria on the first day of school—and on every day thereafter, they’ll probably notice something different. Colorful produce, often featuring fresh and local products, will be part of the cafeteria line. Healthier slices of pizza with low-fat cheese on whole-wheat crusts will replace the old fare. Mystery meat will be a thing of the past, and kids are going to see a lot more whole grains, fruits and vegetables and less salt and sugar.
These changes should have broad-based implications for all Californians.
California schools serve more than 810 million meals to more than 6 million kids each year. Every one of those meals is an opportunity to help keep kids healthy. Sure, obesity is the most obvious consequence of feeding our kids junk food, but it’s hardly the only outcome—a national population-based sample of 5-to-17-year-olds showed that 70% of obese youth had at least one risk factor of cardiovascular disease. And, of course, we know that obesity leads to an increased risk for Type-II diabetes.
Healthy lunches can help reverse these truly scary trends. A 5-year-old shouldn’t show signs of cardiovascular disease, and we shouldn’t be serving kids junk that sets them up for a lifetime of symptoms that have to be managed with expensive medical care.
The new lunch guidelines make sure that when kids eat at school, they eat real food. The new lunch menus lean heavily on fresh vegetables (which are served, as opposed to just offered), whole grains and seasonal fruits. There’s less grease, less sugar and less fat.
One of the most important things about the new lunch guidelines is that local districts maintain control over how the guidelines are implemented. Menus are set at the local level, by local administrators who understand local tastes and preferences.
The Sacramento City Unified School District has already been successful in bringing healthy meals to the cafeteria. The district has brought “Go Green, Eat Fresh” salad bars loaded with locally grown produce to all its schools, providing students with colorful and fresh fruit and vegetable choices daily. Lunch menus have also expanded to include “from scratch” meal choices, such as chicken teriyaki over whole grain rice, rainbow trout fish sandwiches, and chicken and vegetable tamales.
The driving force behind Sacramento City’s success is Superintendent Jonathan Raymond’s Healthy Foods Taskforce, a collaboration between the district nutrition services and outside partners. The task force focuses on food quality and taste, the climate and culture of school cafeterias and campus gardens. Importantly, through the Taskforce, students are involved in taste-testing menu items, so new, healthier meal options are designed with their preferences in mind.
The funny thing is, in Sacramento City, and in other similar districts across the state, the results have been clear. Kids prefer fresh, healthy, high-quality options to mystery meat and heavily processed foods.
At the California Endowment, we know that health happens in schools, and as part of our statewide “Health Happens Here” campaign, we are raising awareness about the new meal standards.
We also know that serving students healthy meals during school leads to other advantages outside of school. Students who ate healthier school foods as part of our Healthy Eating, Active Communities (HEAC) program, between 2004 and 2010, brought their healthy habits home. A survey of students attending HEAC schools found no evidence that students consumed more junk food at home because it wasn’t available in school. In other words, the result of kids eating healthier food at school is that they bring those healthier habits to their family dinner tables.
Healthy students perform better in the classroom. We expect to see kids miss less school, learn more each year, and score better on standardized tests.
Healthy students grow into healthy adults resulting in a healthier California. That’s why The California Endowment has been so vocal in support of the new school menus. We see the new guidelines as integral to the success of our mission to promote fundamental improvements in the health status of all Californians.
Daniel Zingale is senior vice president of Healthy California at The California Endowment.