Monday, September 30, 2013

Big Win For First Lady & Let's Move!: 99.5% Of Schools Stay With National School Lunch Program

Department of Agriculture reports tiny drop-out rate after introduction of healthier food standards...
Washington, DC - As America's schools went back into session this year, there was an onslaught of media reports about what was supposedly a nationwide cafeteria revolt over the healthier lunch standards championed by First Lady Michelle Obama with the Let's Move! campaign.  

It was a repeat of stories from last year.  Kids were supposedly dissatisfied with their meals and complaining that the foods they disliked came in too-small portions.  Frustrated school nutrition directors were supposedly fleeing the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) in droves.

Turns out the headlines are fiction.  About 99.5% of schools have stuck with the National School Lunch Program since the healthier food standards were introduced at the start of the 2012 school year, the Department of Agriculture's Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services announced on Monday.  

About 32 million children in 99,824 public and private schools and institutions participate in the NSLP, and just 524 schools have dropped out, said Agriculture Deputy Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Janey Thornton in a post on USDA's blog.

And only 146 of those schools--0.15%--cited the healthier food options as the reason for leaving, Thornton said.  The others gave no specific reason for their departure. 

"While we encourage the very few eligible school districts that have chosen not to participate in the school meals program to take steps to ensure all children will still have access to healthy, affordable meals during the school day, it is clear that the vast majority of schools and parents think that the new meals are working," Thornton said. 

The highest dropout rates for schools have been in Guam and Hawaii, where more than 2% of schools dropped out, and in Maryland, where 1.45% dropped out. 

It's a big win for the First Lady, who has extensively promoted the healthier meal patterns--on TV talk shows, in print, and at events at the White House--after being the most high-profile advocate for the legislation that mandated the changes, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act 2010, signed by President Barack Obama in December of 2011. 

It's also a big win for parents, who are relying on schools to not derail their efforts to raise healthier children, many of whom get up to half of their calorie requirements at school each day, according to USDA.

The Act offered the first real changes to the school meal pattern in years.  It requires schools to offer at least one vegetable or fruit per meal, reduce salt and fat, and comply with a variety of other nutrition requirements, such as serving whole grains, lean meats and low- or non-fat milk.  For the first time, schools were also required to set upper and lower calorie limits by grade level, in order to control portion size.   

The youngest children participating in the NSLP will now grow up being served meals that are profoundly different than that offered students who are now in high school.  French fries will be baked instead of drenched in oil; pastas and pizza crusts will be whole grain.  Child-sized salad bars are now in 2,678 schools across the US, thanks to the Let's Move Salad Bars to Schools component of the Let's Move! campaign.  

It will certainly help what Mrs. Obama recently hailed as a "cultural shift" in America's eating habits involving healthier foods, which will ostensibly reduce the national prevalence of child obesity.  Mrs. Obama's campaign seeks to reduce that number from its current national prevalence of about 17% to just 5% by 2030.

Thornton also noted that the USDA survey found that even before the updated standards went into effect, 80% of schools were ALREADY serving healthier foods. 

"We recently surveyed states and schools across the country, and the vast majority of schools--80 percent--have already reported that they are meeting the updated meal standards successfully, with some states reporting 100 percent of schools completely transitioned to the new standards," Thornton said.  

"We expect the remaining schools to ‘make it official’ soon, too."

But the success of the school meals program is not the kind of news that will make a headline on the Drudge Report.  This year, the bash fest in media coverage for Mrs. Obama and healthier school lunches was incited by this inaccurate story, headlined "Kentucky students to first lady Michelle Obama: Your food ‘tastes like vomit.’"*

Still, the changes in meal patterns have not been without challenges, something USDA admits and has addressed.  After some school districts struggled to implement the new guidelines at the beginning of the 2012 school year, USDA eased some of the original requirements.  In December, the Department allowed schools to offer more daily and weekly servings of meats and whole grains.

Beginning next fall when USDA's Smart Snacks in Schools rule goes into effect, upgraded standards for foods sold in a la carte lunch lines, school stores, and in school vending machines will also be in place, in a continuing roll-out of the legislation.   Candy bars will be replaced by healthier whole grain granola bars, chips will be baked instead of fried, sodas and sugary beverages will be eliminated from vending machines.  The school food landscape will continue to get healthier.

A new study from Pew's Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods Project...
A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts' Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods Project, also released on Monday, found that 91% of school food officials surveyed said they faced challenges in putting the new meal standards in place. 

The report said almost all schools surveyed had expected to meet the new meal requirements by the end of the 2012 school year, but noted that "a sizable majority of school food authorities reported facing challenges while implementing the updated school meal standards."

That problems included food costs and the availability of foods, training employees to follow the new guidelines, and a lack of the proper equipment to cook the healthier meals.

Still, though some school districts are finding challenges, the report "shows that this is certainly doable," said Jessica Donze Black, director of the Pew project, which has lobbied for healthier foods, and worked with the Let's Move! campaign to educate parents and school officials about the new standards.

Download the Pew Report:  Serving Healthy School Meals: Despite Challenges, Schools Meet USDA Meal Requirements {PDF}

Above, USDA's chart showing participation and drop-out rates in the NSLP.

*A note on the vomit story in Daily Caller, which incited this year's spate of headlines:  The comment about vomit was made by a Kentucky parent at a school board meeting, and referred to the taste of milk, rather than school meals.  But Daily Caller ignored that fact, though it linked to the original story from Kentucky media.  The Associated Press also published a story that made it seem like schools were evacuating the federal lunch program.
*Photo at top:  Mrs. Obama had lunch with students at Parklawn Elementary School in Alexandria, VA, in January of 2012 to celebrate the healthier school standards.  Photo by Chuck Kennedy/White House.  USDA graphic.