As we continue to combat childhood obesity in America, I am proud to say that this Back to School season our school cafeterias are at the heart of offering great nutrition for our kids. Students and schools are embracing the healthier lunches offered through the National School Lunch Program that, together with the healthier breakfasts offered through the School Breakfast Program beginning this school year and the recently announced “Smart Snacks in School” nutrition standards that kick in next year, continue our children on the path towards future health and happiness.
So how are school cafeterias faring with all the meal updates across the nation? Like I said, they are putting their hearts into it.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Florida, Montana, Oklahoma, North Carolina, South Carolina and Colorado, where all or nearly all school cafeterias are now serving meals that meet the new standards. Kudos to them!
In fact, at the end of this past school year, 79 percent of all participating school districts across the country had notified their states that they were meeting the new standards! This represents a significant achievement for the first year of implementation. We are confident that the remaining schools will make the changes needed to qualify for the performance based reimbursement in the coming year.
In Colorado, for example, Jane Brand, Director of the Office of Nutrition at the Colorado Department of Education, tried several innovative approaches to become the first state to complete certification and validation of all schools. Initially, the Colorado staff mailed jump drives with all the paperwork and instructions to each school district. Some schools were better than others at mastering the system and utilized the jump drives. For the rest, Brand and her staff hit the road and met face to face with dozens of districts small and large across Colorado. The hands-on approach worked to relieve the stress many districts felt in getting through the process. Brand also cross-trained her staff and encouraged school districts to share ideas and information on how to master the process.
The best news is that changes in schools are expected to have a positive impact. Research shows that school-based programs that encourage healthy eating, physical activity and positive body image attitudes are among a range of actions that can help reduce levels of childhood obesity. We are already seeing a promising reversal in childhood obesity rates, and this fall, with a return to healthy eating in schools, I expect nothing less than more progress.
Dr. Janey Thornton is Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Deputy Under Secretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture