Children in the school lunch line

Editor’s Note: Retired pediatrician Alan Lake, M.D., writes that there’s ample proof that the government’s school lunch standards are helping America’s kids get the nutrition they need.  

There is myriad evidence that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, signed into law by President Obama in December 2010, is working. And it’s not just working – it’s thriving.

As of September 2016, more than 99 percent of schools participating in the National School Lunch Program were meeting the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s updated science-based nutritional standards, up from only 14 percent in 2009-2010, before the law went into effect.

Retired pediatrician Alan Lake, M.D.

Retired pediatrician Alan Lake, M.D.

School meal programs are as American as apple pie. They date back more than 70 years ago, when, under the Truman administration, serving breakfast and/or lunch to kids in schools became an important public health intervention to ensure kids receive the proper nutrition to fuel them as they grow and learn – and to develop healthy habits that will last a lifetime.

The USDA standards have been phased in mostly over the past few years. Because of these standards, kids are eating more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and less fat, sugar and sodium. The state and local school nutrition services have further adapted the guidelines and customized them to their local cultural preferences and local access to fresh food sources. Restrictions on unhealthy vending machine foods and access have also helped kids eat healthier.

One standard still being implemented is sodium. Earlier this month, after some uncertainty, the USDA announced it was moving forward with the second target of sodium standards slated to go into effect for the 2017-2018 school year, while giving schools that face challenges an extra year to comply. The USDA will also provide additional assistance to schools as they work toward the average 325 milligram sodium reduction through initiatives such as What’s Shaking? and Team Up for School Nutrition Success.

Today, nearly one in three children are overweight or obese. But reasonable sodium reduction can help stymie their risk of developing high blood pressure, which can lead to premature heart disease, stroke and other chronic health issues.

It is clear that reducing excessive salt intake must begin very early in childhood. In the coming months, the nonprofit group 1,000 Days will launch an initiative to address optimal salt, fat, sugar and protein intake from the time of conception to age 3. Early and consistent education of children and their parents is absolutely critical to establishing the nutritional foundations of wellness for life.

A frequently cited argument against current school meal standards is that kids do not like the healthier foods they are being served and have, in turn, increased food waste. However, a recent study in JAMA Pediatrics counters that argument, noting kids are now eating 16 percent more vegetables, 23 percent more fruit and are throwing away less food.

While food waste is indeed a problem for this country, it is one that existed prior to the updated nutritional standards. We’re just paying closer attention to it now. In addition, giving children enough time to eat goes a long way to ensure less waste and successful eating habits at school.

Meanwhile, schools are hearing good things from kids. Recent surveys found 70 percent of elementary school administrators and food service staff report positive feedback from students on the healthier lunch standards, and 72 percent of parents support nutrition standards for school meals. Popular programs such as farm-to-school and school gardens help enhance meal time, and adopting best practices that engage children, such as taste tests, food presentation and cafeteria environment, also boost a program’s success.

This is just the beginning. By 2025, the healthy nutrition standards for all food sold in schools are estimated to decrease the number of childhood obesity cases by more than 2 million and reduce school costs by $800 million. A USDA analysis found a $200 million increase in revenue in the first year of implementing updated meal standards.

Although the 114th Congress failed to advance a child nutrition reauthorization and they are unlikely to take up the issue in the coming year, child nutrition can continue to operate indefinitely under the status quo without a bill. However, it is important to understand how much we have accomplished so far under the current law and to not move backward. The fight for children’s health and wellness continues.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act has been one of the more successful public health interventions. I ask Congress to double down on its commitment to these science-based standards. The stakes – our children’s health and, in turn, the health of our nation – are too high.