With millions of children now eating both breakfast and lunch at school, school meals play a crucial role in providing the nutrition foundation children need to succeed in the classroom. For some, the food they get at school may be all they have to eat in the course of a day. It’s an important fact to consider – particularly now, as kids across the country head back to school.
In my role as Acting Deputy Undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, I can assure you that we’re committed to making certain that the food our kids are served at school is both nutritious and satisfying. That is why USDA is providing more flexibilities to schools striving to feed children, promote nutrition, and run a financially stable food service program. Just days after taking office, the Secretary issued a proclamation that will take effect this school year granting schools additional flexibility with regard to whole grains, sodium, and flavored milk to help them be responsive to their specific local circumstances.
As we work to improve school nutrition, the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) relies on the work of school food professionals across the country -- and with good reason. These dedicated – and unsung -- professionals are uniquely positioned: They know the children in their care and understand the needs of their school and community, which allows them to explore creative ways to encourage kids to make healthy food choices. This may include everything from student taste tests and food sampling to chef partnerships, salad bars, breakfast in the classroom, or simply offering more choices that students want (ethnic and regional foods, salad bars, or vegetarian options).
Local is also a priority when it comes to the food served in our schools’ cafeterias. More than 42,500 schools now participate in farm to school practices, and it’s having a positive impact on kids’ palettes and school finances. Plus, when schools buy the ingredients they need close to home, there’s another important benefit: It nourishes the local economy, which can be especially important in rural areas. Bottom line: Farm to school is a win-win all around.
Initiatives like these – and the caring, personal touch they express – help explain the amazing growth experienced in recent years by the School Breakfast Program. Nearly 25 percent more kids eat breakfast at school now than in 2010, which translates to nearly 3 million more children getting a healthy start to their day. Research shows that students who consume breakfast make greater strides on standardized tests, pay attention and behave better in class, and are less frequently tardy, absent or visiting the nurse’s office. These effects are highlighted in this video on Breakfast After the Bell, offered in Chicago Public Schools and elsewhere in Illinois.
So as school bells begin to ring and students pick up their backpacks once again, stop to consider the vital role healthy school nutrition plays in the lives of America’s children and the important efforts of our country’s school food professionals. Here at FNS, we are committed to continuing to work with these dedicated professionals to ensure the school meals programs are best positioned to fulfill local needs and foster the growth of tomorrow’s leaders, today.