Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a final rule that will relax nutrition standards for meals under the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), School Breakfast Program (SBP) and other federal child nutrition programs that were implemented in 2012. The rule will:
- Change whole grain requirements so that half of the total weekly grains served in menus be whole grain-rich. Previously, all breads, cereals and pastas had to be at least 50% whole grain. Now, a school could serve foods that are not whole grain-rich, as long as at least 50% of the total weekly menu complies.
- Lengthen the amount of time for sodium reduction in meals, requiring Target 2 be met by School Year 2024-2015, and eliminate the Final Target. Previously, the rule was designed to meet the Final Target and cut sodium levels in half by 2022.
- Allow more flavored milk options - like chocolate and strawberry 1% - to be served. Previously, flavoring was only permitted in fat-free milks.
Beyond successful implementation, we know that the healthier standards can and are working to get students eating more fruits and vegetables, maintaining NSLP participation, and not increasing plate waste. But these positive impacts have taken time to come to fruition.
At the National Farm to School Network, we know implementing healthier nutrition standards is like teaching kids how to ride a bicycle. We don’t prop them up on the seat, plant their feet on the pedals, and expect them to be able to ride on two wheels at their first go. Often times, we give them an extra set of wheels - training wheels - to teach them how to balance, feel comfortable, and catch a first thrill of self-propelled forward motion. We expect it will take a few tries before the training wheels come off, and a few tumbles before new riders are really cruising.
Developing healthy eating habits goes much the same way. We shouldn’t expect kids to always like the taste of a new vegetable, or love whole grain pizza crust at first bite after being accustomed to white flour. That’s where farm to school makes its biggest impact. Activities like taste tests, school gardens, farm visits, and cooking demonstrations help students get excited about trying and liking new, healthier foods. This is something we hear over and over and over again, and it’s what the research tells us. Simply put, farm to school activities are the training wheels that make healthier nutrition standards stick with students.
Giving kids repeated opportunities to learn about their food — by gardening, meeting farmers, cooking — and opportunities to try new foods — with Harvest of the Month, salad bars, and new menu item samples — add up to more receptiveness and enthusiasm for healthier school meals. Farm to school doesn’t guarantee that kids will like everything served to them, but it does aim to give kids every opportunity to build healthy habits that will last them a lifetime.
Once you learn how to ride a bike, backwards is not a direction you want to move in. As our kids continue to grow accustomed to the healthier nutrition standards, now is not the time to go backwards. We owe it to our nation’s children, and they’re counting on us. With more than 30 million children participating in the National School Lunch Program, it’s crucial that we continue to give them strong opportunities for a bright and healthy future.