Idaho Ed News published a piece entitled “Idaho Schools Combat Food Waste” that described food waste in school cafeterias. Unfortunately, it could lead readers to question the value of such programs. As individuals and organizations who are deeply committed to children’s health, we would like to suggest how we can support these programs and the hardworking professionals who serve our children.
Here are the facts about hungry students and school food:
USDA-supported meal programs operate in nearly all U.S. public schools. These programs have existed for decades, initially created to support student learning and to ensure that our nation’s youth would be healthy and fit enough to serve in the military and defend our country. We still have these needs today. In the past few decades, research has confirmed the value of school meals for the health and academic success of American students. School meals keep children well-nourished, helping them concentrate and learn in the classroom. School meals are also a crucial part of the hunger safety net in our country, and millions of children whose families struggle financially are able to receive free or reduced-priced meals through federal support. Of the more than 38.4 million school meals served last year in Idaho, 22.8 million were provided free, with 3.5 million at reduced price (40 cents for a lunch). For families who live below or slightly above the poverty line, these school-based support programs are crucial for addressing hunger. For many food-insecure students, what they eat at school may be the only meal they receive each day.
School meal programs are an example of our tax dollars at work, and Idaho residents receive an excellent return on our costs. Each year our state receives more than $73 million from the federal government in support of these programs. We are fortunate to have a skilled and dedicated team at the Idaho State Department of Education’s Child Nutrition Program to administer these programs, and they have also been awarded many highly-competitive USDA grants. This benefits Idaho’s schools with assistance in menu planning; training in efficiency, leadership, and nutrition; and many other support services. Being good stewards of taxpayer resources is of crucial importance, and all school nutrition programs are expected to operate with the utmost fiscal responsibility.
Food waste can be problematic anywhere food is served, but the Idaho Ed News story stated that “current federal requirements promote healthier school meals but also contribute to the waste,” and we would respond that this is simply not true. Research published in prestigious peer-reviewed scientific journals demonstrates that waste did not increase after the new standards — but students’ consumption of healthier foods has actually increased.
The story noted that “school lunch laws also strap meals with stringent sodium and sugar restrictions that leave some kitchen workers scrambling to deliver meals comparable in taste to the unhealthier foods many kids opt for outside school.” In response, we would note that school meals are not comparable to what can be purchased at fast food restaurants, snack bars, or gas stations. At schools, our responsibility is to teach children about the fundamentals of good nutrition and how to make healthy choices, and to ensure that schools provide healthful options, including a variety of fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy — from local Idaho farmers and ranchers whenever possible. While some school nutrition professionals found it challenging to re-design their menus to meet the updated nutrition standards four years ago, all schools in Idaho are now meeting the nutrition standards. Most are doing an excellent job of serving fresh, tasty food. A large nationwide study found that most parents support the new meal standards and do not want junk food in schools, by a margin of three to one.
The Idaho Ed News story uses a small study from one district to project that food waste across the state amounts to $6.6 million. Because food waste varies widely — not only from one district or school to another, but also from day to day — this is a projection that should be interpreted with caution. Rather than speculating about the extent and cost of food waste, and blaming the USDA’s meal standards, we believe that it would be better to focus on what has been effective and to applaud the school nutrition professionals in our state who have worked so hard to make school meals healthy and appealing.
How are schools achieving success? Many schools in Idaho are using best-practices that have been demonstrated to be effective. Student input and choice is important, and salad bars, taste tests, and giving students a voice in menu decisions engages them as customers. Increasing access to meals with options such as “grab and go” or “breakfast in the classroom” dramatically increases participation rates and ensures that all students can start their school day well-nourished and ready to learn. Increasing the length of lunch periods from 20 to 30 minutes allows children enough time to eat their meals — this is important because research has shown that fresh fruits and vegetables and salads take more time to eat.
In a large 2016 nationwide survey, 84 percent of school nutrition directors reported that their district had stable or increasing revenue in the past year. In other words, they are no longer struggling financially because of the standards. Most districts have adjusted to the new standards, and meals are much healthier. As noted in JAMA Pediatrics last year, the research about the benefits of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 and the resulting nutrition standards for school meals is strong and compelling, and this bipartisan legislation was one of the major public health success stories of the past decade.
When students are healthy and able to learn, we all benefit as a society. We thank our state agencies and policymakers for their support of these crucial nutrition programs that benefit so many children and adolescents across our state.
Written in collaboration by Lindsey Turner, PhD and Hannah Calvert, PhD, College of Education, Boise State University; Sherry Iverson, RN, American Academy of Pediatrics, Idaho Chapter; Dayle Hayes, MS, RD, Nutrition for the Future, Inc.; Idaho Hunger Relief Task Force, Idaho Dairy Council and Idaho Interfaith Roundtable Against Hunger.