Why Healthy School Meals Matter


School meals matter. Just ask any teacher or parent and theyll tell you that children who lack proper nutrition have trouble focusing in school. Medical authorities and nutrition researchers have documented that youngsters who eat nutritious meals every day and lead active lifestyles tend to excel. More importantly, our schools are on the frontline of efforts to improve childhood nutrition, our collective health, and the future of our great nation. Improving the meals that our kids eat in schools is an important step to achieve that goal.

As secretary of agriculture, I oversee the federal governments school nutrition programs, and these programs are uniquely positioned to lead the way to improve poor diets, promote physical activity, and advance the nutritional education of Americas children. The commitment of the Obama administration to these issues is very real, as evidenced by the launch of First Lady Michelle Obamas Lets Move campaign to solve childhood obesity within a generation. The Lets Move campaign will combat the epidemic of childhood obesity through a comprehensive approach that builds on effective strategies, and mobilizes public and private sector resources. And now the First Lady is using the upcoming reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act as the legislative centerpiece to improve the overall nutrition of school meals.

The importance of school meals is underscored by the current state of the health and nutrition of our nations children. Obesity is our fastest-growing public health issue with roughly 1 out of 3 children overweight or obese. The lack of access to proper nutrition is also leading to food insecurity and hunger among our children. A recent USDA report showed that in 2008, an estimated 16.7 million children lived in households that experienced hunger multiple times throughout the year. Meanwhile, school-age children are not eating the recommended levels of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products, according to a 2009 Institute of Medicine report.

  • Congress will soon be debating the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which presents us with a unique and important opportunity to improve the health and nutrition of children across the nation. The National School Lunch Program serves approximately 31 million children in more than 100,000 of our schools. Meanwhile, 11 million kids participate each day in the National School Breakfast Program. For many children, the breakfast and lunch they get at school is the only healthy food they eat all day. By improving school meals, we are not only providing important nutritional assistance, but we are also helping kids to be better equipped to feed their minds.
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  • The Obama administration has proposed a historic investment of $10 billion in additional funding over 10 years to better our child nutrition programs by improving access to the programs, serving more nutritious meals, and enhancing program performance. This funding is necessary to reduce hunger and enhance access to these important programs and to serve healthier and more attractive school meals. This is an important investment in our children and the future health and well-being of America.

Our greatest opportunity is to improve overall nutrition standards for school meals and extend these science-based standards to all food sold in schools. The USDA is in the process of updating the meal requirements for the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs to reflect the latest dietary guidelines for Americans. We are following the Institute of Medicines report that recommends increases in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free/low-fat milk and milk products, and limitations on the levels of sodium, saturated fat, trans fat, and calories in school meals. Following a strong reauthorization, we anticipate school meals will:

  1. Involve more on-site food preparation and actual cooking.
  2. Be prepared by food-service professionals who have appropriate training and support to meet our improved nutritional goals.
  3. Include more locally produced food.
  4. Consist of more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and fat-free/low-fat milk and milk products.

Extending science-based nutrition standards to all food sold in schools involves establishing minimum nutrition standards for the whole school environment, including foods in the à la carte lines and in vending machines, to ensure that they complement a healthy diet. The USDA will work with Congress through reauthorization and later through public rule-making to determine the best process to improve the school environment. We also can do more to help upgrade school cafeteria infrastructure and support training for school food-service professionals so that they have the tools to prepare healthy meals that are also appealing to students.

By working with Congress, we also want to reduce barriers and encourage increased participation in school meal programs. This means urging states to continue to use direct certification and creating avenues for low-income school districts to reduce paperwork and make it easier for children to participate. But we also must reach kids when they arent in school—on weekends, during the summer months, during breakfast, and in after-school environments—because no child in America should go hungry. With these changes, we expect that our reforms will bring nutritious meals to another 1 million kids over the next five years.

At the same time, the federal government cannot tackle nutrition, hunger, and obesity issues on its own. We must engage partners at all levels, including parents, elected officials, educators, food-service workers, public health professionals, and others who are positioned to improve the health and nutrition of our children. Already, the private sector is taking action, with major food suppliers making commitments to decrease the amount of sugar, fat, and salt in school meals and increase servings of produce and whole grains.

Just as students need good teachers for inspiration and caring parents for encouragement, they need a strong nutritional foundation to succeed in life. And this nutritional foundation starts with healthy school meals. Its imperative that we deliver—for our children, our collective health, and the future of our great country.

Tom Vilsack was appointed by President Barack Obama as the 30th secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and sworn into office on January 21, 2009. As secretary of agriculture, Vilsack's priorities include strengthening the American agricultural economy, conserving natural resources, and providing a safe, sufficient, and nutritious food supply for the American people.