Enhanced School Wellness Environments Make the Smart Choice the Easy Choice for a Healthier Next Generation

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Given that many children today eat two meals a day at school, it’s vital that we make every effort to ensure that they have access to the healthy foods they need and the knowledge to make healthy choices. The proposed school wellness policy guidelines and the expansion of community eligibility announced by First Lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at the White House this week mark important steps forward.

We are so excited to see all the great progress that is being made in schools today.  Over 90 percent of schools are successfully meeting the new school meal standards, and participation is up in many areas of the country. As more schools, parents, and children continue to embrace healthier school meals, we are seeing great progress in areas such as Dallas, large school districts in Florida, and the city of Los Angeles, where we saw a 14 percent increase under the new standards.

We know that anytime a significant change is implemented there will be a transition period.  Recently, the Government Accountability Office put out a report about the new school meal standards that highlighted a slight drop in participation during the 2012-2013 school year, the first year of the new, healthier meals.  While it’s true that some schools adapted to these new standards more easily than others during that time period, it’s also true that many schools saw increases in participation, particularly in schools where they had begun implementing these standards before the 2012-2013 school year. Fundamentally, we are making progress, and as more kids and schools continue to successfully make the transition to the new standards, we expect participation to keep climbing back across the country.

The proposed standards for local school wellness policies will help ensure that foods and beverages marketed to children in schools are consistent with the “Smart Snacks in School” standards that go into effect later this year. Championed by First Lady Michelle Obama, the Smart Snack standards offer a common-sense approach to healthy eating in schools. The Smart Snacks standards ensure that snack foods in schools include whole grains, low-fat dairy, fruits and vegetables, or protein foods as their main ingredients, while still preserving time-honored school traditions like occasional cookie sales and birthday treats. The food marketing and local wellness standards proposed by USDA will ensure that the school environment supports healthy choices. Bottom line: these steps help make the healthy choice, the easy choice for millions of schoolchildren.

It’s clear that the improvements we’ve made to school breakfasts, lunches, and snacks really do make a difference in students’ lives beyond the cafeteria, and it’s time we provided consistent nutrition messaging to all the kids who consume these meals every day.  If a food cannot be sold to children in schools, it shouldn’t be marketed to children in schools.

The food marketing and local wellness standards USDA has just proposed support better health for our kids and echo the good work already taking place in schools across the country. The new standards ensure schools remain a safe place where kids can learn and where only nutritious options are marketed.  Parents and teachers work hard to instill healthy habits, and our proposal reinforces that value by ensuring kids are exposed to only tasty, nutritious options when at school.

The food marketing and local wellness standards dovetail nicely with the Community Eligibility Provision, another important step forward. This provision is a part of the strategy to provide more eligible children with access to the healthy school meals provided by the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs, while streamlining the process for schools.  By eliminating paper applications, it allows schools that serve a high percentage of low-income students the option of offering meals free to all students. USDA reimburses these schools based on the percentage of students that have identified as eligible for free meals through other assistance programs, and the school pays the remainder of the cost. This may sound ho-hum technical, but changes like these can provide a real boost, moving from “wish we could” to successfully achieving our goal. Research we released on Tuesday shows that schools that were already using this provision saw significantly higher participation in lunch and breakfast programs, with reduced administrative burden. Starting July 1, this option will be available to all states, and will help as many as 9 million American children eat healthy meals at school, especially breakfast, which can have profound impacts on educational achievement.

Taken together, we’re making progress. As USDA’s Deputy Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, I’m proud of USDA’s role in fostering much-needed changes in the school nutrition environment. As research shows, good nutrition is an important building block to help kids learn, grow and thrive.

And in that light, I think these are changes we can all take pride in.

Click here to see what others are saying about the new Food Marketing and Local Wellness proposal.

Click here to see what others are saying about the Community Eligibility Provision.