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Fixing School Lunch Inequities | Commentary

By Susan Levin, M.S., R.D. The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 is gradually fixing school lunch inequities. But to make sure all children continue to have growing access to healthful school lunches, the Senate must not weaken the legislation when its reauthorization is considered on Sept. 17.  

Reversing current provisions that require more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains would reverse new findings such as those from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. A recent study the organization conducted found that schools with more racially, ethnically diverse student bodies now have greater access to these foods every day thanks to the act.  

That’s good news. But even better: Students are eating those healthier lunches. Research published in the journal Childhood Obesity found that under the new policies, consumption of fruits and vegetables has increased, while plate waste has decreased.  

The health nonprofit I work for has seen firsthand that children will eat—and actually want—healthier school lunches. Here in Washington, D.C., this past spring, we teamed up with another organization to provide students at a D.C. public school with weekly plant-based meals like Powered-Up Pasta, Veg-Out Chili, and Barbecue Tofu Bites.  

It was a growth experience for everyone involved. We learned which meals were student favorites and what we could do to improve other meals — while still keeping them healthful. The students could opt for pasta with chickpeas instead of chicken nuggets and bean chili instead of beef chili.  

Parents also agree that children should have access to more meals like these. Earlier this summer, a Pew Charitable Trust poll found that the majority of parents surveyed support healthy school meal standards. More than 70 percent said that meals would be substantially better if schools offered a greater variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.  

So it would be a mistake for Congress to act on recommendations by special interest groups that want to turn back the new school lunch requirements. The Physicians Committee is not alone in this stance. The New England Journal of Medicine recently noted that “the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Heart Association, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and more than 200 other organizations joined First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in opposing the challenges to the new school-nutrition standards.”  

One of those challenges is the School Nutrition Association. My organization recently published a report showing that in SNA’s magazine—which goes to 55,000 school food service professionals—ads pushing pepperoni pizza and chicken nuggets far outnumber ads for healthier options.  

But there is hope. Soon after our report was published, Jean Ronnei was named the 2015-16 president of SNA. In 2012, Ronnei — who was then the nutrition services director for Saint Paul Public Schools in Minnesota — won the grand prize in the Physicians Committee’s Golden Carrot Awards for promoting healthy school lunches.  

She earned the prize for programs such as Healthy Hits, a cost-friendly program that ensured students received meals such as black bean and edamame salad, Moroccan rice and whole-grain pasta with marinara sauce. Saint Paul schools also offered students unlimited access to fresh fruits and vegetables.  

Under Ronnei’s leadership, it’s time for SNA to stop pushing Congress for less healthful school lunches. Instead, SNA needs to put “nutrition” back in its name by urging Congress to give every child in every school access to health-promoting school meals.  

Susan Levin, M.S., R.D., is director of nutrition education for the Physicians Committee, a nonprofit with 12,000 doctor members.

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