For millions of children across the country, school meals contribute up to 50% of their daily caloric intake. The impact these meals have on their development and day to day health is even more significant than previously thought.
In 2013, the Obama-Era Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act went into effect. This legislation increased the nutritional requirements for school meals. It required whole grains instead of refined flours, increased variety in vegetables, limited sugary items sold with meals and a la carte, and reduced the allowed sodium levels. These new requirements ensured that at school, kids were getting more balanced meals, and the proper nutrition needed to succeed.
Last week, Harvard released a study that very clearly illuminated the positive effects of these requirements particularly among children in poverty. According to the study, without the changes required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act over the 5 year period studied, obesity among these children would have been 47% higher.
Obesity affects over 18% of children ages 2-19 in the U.S. The number one cause is the food they eat. Diets high in added sugar and processed foods, cause lasting metabolic problems that follow them into adulthood. For the first time in history, children today are expected to have lower life spans than their parents. It doesn’t have to be this way. By continuing the model set forth by Michelle Obama in the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, we can prevent and reverse metabolic disease in children early on. Our mission at Eat REAL is to do just that.
Our REAL standards have always promoted the consumption of nutrient-rich unadulterated fruits and vegetables and whole grains. We work to limit or remove overly processed foods and foods high in added sugars. Working with leaders in school foodservice we continually refine our standards to better support change in the school food system. Our certification program continually raises the standard for nutrition in school meals and has successfully reduced added sugar and overly processed foods in our pilot districts. We have seen an increase in whole fresh fruits and vegetables served, along with healthier food preparation practices to better fuel students.
School food service leaders have continued this work through the emergency meal pick up programs, ensuring kids and their families remain fed when schools had to shut down. With a new school year beginning, these programs will need even more support as temporary policies expire. Many families are still facing unemployment, and finding it harder to keep food on the table.
“This fall is the most urgent food crisis, particularly among kids, anytime since the Great Depression,” Says Eat REAL Chief Pediatrician Dr. Alan Greene, “ It is also an unprecedented opportunity. This is a time where we can really remake school food to something that’s wonderful – something accessible, affordable, and appropriate. Something that really feeds the body and minds of people while being fun and delicious”.
While this is one of the first (of hopefully many) official studies on the impact of nutrition at school on the metabolic health of children, we know that real food is vital to the health and wellbeing of the next generation. It is so important to support our schools so they can continue to raise the bar for our children. As a new school year begins in the midst of a global pandemic, providing nutrient dense, real food is one the easiest ways to help keep our children healthy.