Today’s guest post comes from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, an organization that aptly describes itself as “a catalyst for children’s health.” While the Alliance has been active in many settings, we at USDA particularly appreciate the dedication they have shown to improving school nutrition. In this post, Dr. Howell Wechsler, CEO, describes some of the successes that his team has witnessed in school cafeterias.
Howell Wechsler, EdD, MPH, Chief Executive Officer, Alliance for a Healthier Generation
Our nation’s students, some of whom consume up to half of their daily calories at school [see also this publication from the US National Library of MedicineNational Institutes of Health], want and deserve healthy choices throughout the school building—in the cafeteria line, vending machines, and school stores.
Just ask eight-year-old Farrah from the William J. Christian School in Birmingham, Alabama: "It's important to have healthy foods as part of school lunch so that kids can have the opportunity to try many fruits and vegetables and see that these foods are delicious,” she told the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. “At the same time we can learn that these foods are good for you…Eating healthy can be fun.”
We can’t deny Farrah—and millions of other students like her—the healthy choices that they need. We’ve come so far. Since the USDA’s updated nutrition guidelines went into effect, school meals have less fat, sodium, and added sugar and more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products.
Over the past nine years, the Alliance has worked with more than 24,000 schools to help them improve the nutritional quality of the foods they offer to students. In 2006, our Healthy Schools Program developed voluntary nutrition standards for school foods, which helped blaze a path for the mandatory federal regulations on school foods that USDA would issue several years later. We brokered an agreement with the beverage industry, which contributed to a 90 percent reduction in calories from beverages shipped to schools between the 2004-2010 school years. We developed tried-and-true resources and tools, such as student taste testing tips, a focus group guide, the Smart Snacks Product Calculator (verified by the USDA), and the Product Navigator, to help engage all parties within the school building—especially students, as well as guide their decision making. And today, we’re helping schools to implement the updated USDA standards and create healthier environments for their students to learn and thrive.
We know implementing these standards can be challenging and will involve asking for new items from vendors, cooperation from administrators, and acceptance by students. But despite these challenges, most schools are meeting the updated meal standards, and schools and states are making progress on the snacks standards as well. In fact, recent research shows that more than half of states have a head start on the healthier standards for school snacks. More than 91 percent of schools nationwide—and more than 95 percent of schools working with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program field staff—are reporting that they are meeting the healthier nutrition standards for school meals. This is incredibly good news and shows that it can be done!
Farrah is not the only student who enjoys healthy choices at school. Students who run the school store at the High School for Public Service in New York have shown that healthy food sales can not only be fun, but also profitable. And students at Monte Vista Elementary School in Albuquerque, New Mexico are having a blast sipping on smoothies while riding bikes instead of participating in traditional fundraisers, such as cake walks. Norwood High School in Ohio now offers healthy international cuisine—as the reimbursable meal—each day of the week. “Latin Tuesday,” complete with corn, red peppers, and Spanish whole-grain rice, has become popular with students. There are many thousands more students in schools across the country taking advantage of healthy foods—jumping in line at the salad bar, munching on their favorite new fruits and vegetables, trying healthy recipes, and sharing their excitement around healthy foods with their peers.
We cannot take away these opportunities from our kids. Our students deserve—and are asking for—easy access to healthy foods and beverages in school, and in turn, a better chance of growing up to lead healthier lives.
- Howell Wechsler, EdD, MPH, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. Over the past nine years, the Alliance has worked with more than 24,000 schools to help them improve the nutritional quality of the foods they offer to students.