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Q&A: How Could Changes To School Lunch Program Affect Kids' Health?

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Shortly before schools were closed to mitigate the spread ofCOVID-19, the USDA proposed changes to nutrition standards for school meals. But some health researchers worry that these changes could actually undo the progress schools have made in improving health outcomes in children.

In 2010, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which provided funding for federal school meals and increased access to healthy food for low-income children. The new nutrition standards went into effect two years later, and over the next several years, researchers saw better health outcomes for children who received these meals. Schools were required to offer more fruit, more servings and varieties of vegetables, more whole grain rich foods and less saturated fat and sodium. 

But in January 2020, the USDA proposed changes that would provide what the agency described as more flexibility. It would give individual schools more control over meal plans. The USDA extended the comment period for its rule changes through Aprill 22. Until then, members of the public can send feedback about the plan. '

The USDA says the changes are intended to give schools more flexibility in determining the nutrition standards they want to implement for their students.  But some health advocates, like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, say, if enacted, the new rules could make school meals less healthy, if they aren't required to meet nutrition standards.  Roxy Todd spoke with one researcher who recently published a study on how school nutrition has improved in the past 8 years -- and why reversing these trends could be detrimental for millions of kids across the country. 

***Editor's Note: The following has been lightly edited for clarity.

Megan Lott is one of the researchers who led a study from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Duke University which looks at how nutrition standards improved health for children who eat school meals. 

Lott: The research has really indicated that the implementation of these nutrition standards, which started in 2012, have resulted in healthier, well-balanced meals, and that that has had significant short- and long-term positive implications for child health and academic performance. And importantly, the kids are really eating the meals and liking the meals. In fact, we find that kids [in] the schools that have the healthiest meals have the highest levels of school meal participation.

Todd: So the schools that are serving the healthiest meals have the highest participation of children who eat those meals?

Lott: That's right. The schools have been doing innovative things with nutrition education in the cafeteria to help guide kids in making healthier choice, and really it comes down to -- kids want healthy items, they want fruits and vegetables. They don't want mushy vegetables. So it's just as important that we are also providing schools with training and technical assistance to be able to learn how to cook the foods so that students will like and eat them and enjoy them, as well.

Todd:Kind of goes against what we assumed that kids love, you know, chicken nuggets and pizza, and that's it. Why do kids want healthier things? I mean, what about it appeals to kids who we assume are picky or eaters?

Lott: If you look at the research going all the way back to infants and toddlers when you're introducing foods, the key is really repetition. The research shows it can take up to 20 times for a kid to learn to like and adapt to new foods. I think when we look at the school meal standards, it's not that different. For example, these standards went into effect in 2012. So a student who entered kindergarten that year is now in seventh or eighth grade -- school meals today are all they've ever known. So for them, having this large variety of fruits and vegetables and whole grains to choose from every day is their normal.

Todd: And I know your study was conducted before schools across the nation were shut down as a result of the coronavirus. But now we're seeing this shift across the country where kids who received school meals for free are either getting bagged lunches that their school districts offer, or in some cases people in the community are serving them. How does this shift impact in your mind the level of nutrition that kids are getting over this quarantine period?

Lott: Well, I think now more than ever, we are seeing how vital school meals are to our society. And it's especially important that access to healthy school meals continue during the coronavirus outbreak. Kids can consume up to half of their daily calories at school and for many of those kids, especially the ones who stand to be most impacted by the proposed changes we were talking about earlier, school meals can be their only source of healthy food. 

Todd:You're a mom working from home right now, as am I. What advice do you have for parents, for grandparents, for neighbors who are essentially feeding a lot of the kids right now at home? What advice do you have for parents preparing meals in a more healthy way? 

Lott: I think remembering to really focus on variety and amount at every meal. To think about each meal as an individual meal and offering half of your plate as fruits and vegetables, but also think about it in the context of the whole day. If you keep offering fruits and veggies, in particular, at every meal and snack, your kid is going to eat some of them and they're going to be getting really good nutrition through that -- maybe they don't need every fruit and vegetable at every meal. But that's okay. It's about balance throughout the day.

Todd: So it used to be that schools had to offer as many whole grains as possible, but in 2018 the USDA changed the requirements so that only half had to be whole-grain. We know from research that whole grains are a really important part of our diet. Can you talk a little bit about? What are whole grains and why are they important?

Lott: Whole grains are, I think in [their] simplest form, they're the unprocessed grain. So if you think about white rice versus brown rice, brown rice has an outer layer covering around it that white rice has had removed through processing, and that outer layer, it contains a lot of vitamins and minerals and importantly, it contains a lot of fiber. And so when you are eating whole grain foods like brown rice, or oatmeal or whole wheat bread, what's happening is you're getting extra vitamins and minerals that you would not be getting if you're eating the processed versions, and your body gets full from eating less volume of that food and you stay fuller longer because that fiber really slows down the digestion. It allows your body to take more time to absorb all the key nutrients and minerals and importantly eat less throughout the day because you are really absorbing all those important nutrients. 

Todd: Do you have a favorite whole grain that you've had luck giving to your kids?

Lott: Oatmeal. In my house, we eat a lot of brown rice or quinoa, but even 100 percent whole wheat bread bagels or pasta are good choices, 100 percent whole wheat crackers. But also a lot of people don't realize popcorn is a whole grain. So that's something we always keep -- popcorn kernels -- in our pantry. And if you're just popping them on the stove with a little bit of oil, it's a very healthy snack. Kids love it. Adults love it. We eat a lot of popcorn in our house.

 

Hey, thanks for reading.
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