Finding Common Ground Amid Changing Standards for School Food

health sign As issues of childhood obesity continue to make the headlines, the USDA is proposing new regulations on schools as part of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010.  One such regulation would restrict nutrition standards for competitive foods in schools.  These “competitive foods” or “Smart Snacks” include a la carte items and other foods sold during the school day on school grounds.  The restrictions, slated to take effect on July 1, 2014, would set limits for fat, calories, sugar, refined grains, and sodium.  At first it might seem like an easy solution to a growing problem.  Most adults agree that kids are eating too many high-calorie, high-fat, sodium-laden, artificially sweetened “foods,” but what to do about it is a different matter entirely. 

With increasing reports on the connection between nutrition and academic achievement, many question what place junk food has in schools at all. On one hand, it is argued that limiting access to these non-nutritious foods on school campuses is the most effective way to ensure students aren’t over-indulging.  On the other hand, these restrictions may very well be undoing the best intentions of schools trying to deliver on the extremely challenging task of serving healthy, appetizing meals on a shoestring budget.  With food costs on the rise, and food service budgets in the red, many food service directors argue that revenue from a la carte items, vending machines, concession stands, and other fundraisers, are the only means keeping fresh, local foods on the daily menu over more processed stand-ins.  After all, isn’t that what we’ve been fighting for?

To further complicate the issue, others suggest that not allowing choice in school cafeterias and other settings doesn’t allow students to develop the critical thinking skills necessary to make healthy choices out in the real world.  They urge increased education and greater transparency around food options rather than forced choice.  These critics maintain that although data may show students making healthier food choices in settings where less healthy options are not present, this does not ensure they are actually consuming these options or that they would make similar choices when allowed to decide between foods of varying content on their own.

So what’s a school to do?  Before engaging in the school food debate, it’s important to keep these varying perspectives in mind.  Rather than villainizing foods or worse, those that are aiming to seek solutions, it may be much easier to find common ground by focusing on the beneficial foods of which we’d like to see more of.  This can be accomplished through a variety of means.  Watertown City School District in Jefferson County, NY has adopted a new policy that promotes nutrition education and healthy eating through food labels and posters.  In addition, they are providing teachers and parents with resources to encourage healthier foods as part of school celebrations.  Other successful approaches include: seasonal food tastings, nutrition classes offered during the day or as part of after school programming, and involving students in planting and maintaining school gardens.

Providing impassioned stakeholders an opportunity to discuss these matters and seek collaborative solutions is also key.  This can be done through a school’s wellness committee.  Although schools have been required to implement a wellness policy and wellness committee since 2006, a new proposal from the USDA would require the committees to undergo periodic assessment and reporting to ensure they are actively working toward achieving the goals of their local school wellness policy.  There are a variety of resources available to school wellness committees to help them think through some of these complex issues and set actionable, achievable goals.  Both the CDC School Health Index and The Alliance for a Healthier Generation offer assessment tools that allow schools to capture what is currently happening in regard to school wellness, and determine the most practical steps toward making healthier changes.  Allowing this space for constructive debate and problem-solving can often bring divided camps together.  At the end of the day, we are all looking for ways to ensure a healthy, productive future for today’s youth, and that is a cause worth fighting for. 


April Neujean, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County


Alliance for a Healthier Generation 

CDC. School Health Index.

USDA: Food and Nutrition Services. Local School Wellness Policy Implementation Under the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Ack of 2010. 

USDA: Food and Nutrition Services. Tools for Schools: Focusing on Smart Snacks

Watertown City School District: Wellness Committee Letter to Parents