This guest blog was submitted by Ellen Parker of Massachusetts’ statewide anti-hunger advocacy organization, Project Bread. As America deals with obesity more than ever, school cafeterias are supporting better nutrition for our kids and echoing public health efforts taking place across the country. USDA is committed to working closely with students, parents, school stakeholders and community partners to continue supporting nutrition guidelines that make the healthy choice, the easy choice for America’s young people.
By Ellen Parker, Executive Director, Project Bread
At Project Bread, it is our belief that the opposite of hungry is not simply full, but healthy. We constantly strive to ensure that every person, across Massachusetts, has consistent access to fresh, healthy foods that meet their needs. And ensuring children have access to healthy meals in school is a major part of that.
With 30 million food insecure children across the country, school breakfast and lunch have the opportunity to provide the majority of low-income students’ daily calories and nutrients. That is why Project Bread knew it was important to work with the USDA in implementing the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, to make those meals in schools as nutritious as possible and to make sure kids who need it most have access. Countless studies have shown that ensuring children are getting healthy meals in school leads to their best possible chance of success — full, healthy kids are better able to concentrate and, retain more that they are learning, score higher on tests, etc.
Armed with this knowledge and in full support of the programs the USDA has implemented since the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, Project Bread has been sending professional chefs into low-income schools around the state, who are helping teach cafeteria staff new ways to prepare their meals to make them as healthy and appealing to kids as possible. As our chefs can attest, it is not enough to just make the meals healthier; you need to get kids interested in eating them, too. To do that, Project Bread chefs involve the kids, talk them through what goes into the recipes, perform taste tests along the way and incorporate their feedback.
Project Bread, along with the Arbella Insurance Foundation, funded a study on the effects of these healthier lunches, as required by the USDA. The study was done by the Harvard School of Public Health and focused on more than 1,000 students in four schools in an urban, low-income school district both before and after the new standards went into effect. It found that the new USDA standards increased fruit selection by 23 percent overall; vegetable consumption increased by 16.2 percent per student; and, despite anecdotal claims by some, there was no increase in average food waste per person.
Clearly, these efforts are working. We’ve all seen the claims from some schools across the country that changing the food in schools is leading to more waste, but that same pilot study found no significant increase in waste at all. The kids we see in our programs are eating healthier. We just need to keep involving the kids in the process, interacting with them and showing them that eating healthy can be both fun and delicious.
That is why Project Bread also created a Let’s Cook Healthy School Meals cookbook, containing more than 100 recipes that meet the new USDA school meal standards, and all designed to tempt students into eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, while reducing salt and dairy fat. The book is full of lessons learned by our chefs working in various school districts, as well as other food service employees from across the state. As we’ve found, we can make a difference in the lives of all children if we put a little extra effort into helping them make healthy eating fun and tasty.
But the final element here, possibly the most important, is access. We at Project Bread know that not everyone can afford to pay for school meals every day. And there can be a stigma attached to being one of the kids who gets a free or reduced-cost meal. The USDA knows that as well, which is why they’ve rolled out the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which enables eligible schools and school districts to offer universal free breakfast and lunch programs across the country. Project Bread — in conjunction with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Child Nutrition Outreach Program — has been doing all it can to make sure as many qualified schools as possible take advantage of this opportunity. Universal free meals ensure all children in qualifying schools have access to the nutritious food they very much need, without the fear of being perceived as different by their classmates. CEP also allows schools to implement more effective, alternative meal options like Breakfast in the Classroom, which makes it so that kids don’t even have to go out and get breakfast — it comes to them while their teachers are starting the day of learning activities. All of these programs really are win-wins: less paperwork for school administrators who used to have to figure out which children qualified for which programs, far easier access for children who want a meal in school, and more attentive children, show greater success in the classroom every single day.
The importance of good nutrition in schools really cannot be overstated. We see it every day. Now, we just want to see more of it.