Growing a Healthier Future: Improving Nutrition and Access to Healthy Food for Americans
In 2008, facing the most difficult economic downturn in decades, a growing number of Americans confronted hunger on a daily basis. The programs that form the foundation of our country’s nutrition safety net — the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) — were in need of unwavering commitment to improve access for all people as well as consistent and strategic investment to ensure healthy foods were available to every participant. At the same time, an obesity epidemic, hunger’s twin, had gripped America’s children and many pointed to outdated school meal standards that lacked sufficient focus on nutritious eating and distressed physicians, parents and teachers.
Seven years later, food insecurity, including the prevalence of hunger among children, has steadily declined from its peak in 2011. Data shows that obesity rates are falling among young kids due in part to the nutritional improvements made to WIC. Our core USDA nutrition assistance programs are reaching more people in need. And because of changes made under the historic Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, over 50 million children have a healthier food environment at school.
We know that important work remains to reduce food insecurity and poverty and continue to improve access to healthy, affordable food. So, below we examine our work since 2008 in Part I of a two-part series on building a healthier next generation.
Fighting Hunger and Improving the Health of America’s Children
Parents work hard at home to ensure that their kids have the tools they need to reach their full potential, so it’s important that they know their hard work is being reinforced in school cafeterias. Decades of research supports the fact that children who are hungry don’t do well in the classroom and suffer from related health issues like obesity, diabetes and other serious chronic diseases.
That’s why new school meal standards implemented under the historic Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) of 2010 built on science-based recommendations to increase fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy, while reducing fats and sodium. The law, a cornerstone of The First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative, made the first meaningful changes to school meal programs in 30 years, works to create a healthier school environment for more than 50 million American kids. Based on recommendations by an independent panel of experts in health, nutrition and school food service, the standards reflect a “right sized” and age-appropriate balance of the food children need as they grow. They work to set guidelines so that students are offered healthier food and beverage options during the day, keeping schools a safe environment that promotes healthy choices. HHFKA also required USDA to develop science-based nutrition standards for snack foods and beverages sold to children at school. Called Smart Snacks in School, this effort supports schools, parents and the larger school community in encouraging across-the-board healthy school environments and instilling healthy habits in students. Strategies like this, coupled with innovative programs like the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement, which equips schools with evidence-based, sustainable, low/no-cost principles that improve child eating behaviors, are leading children to make healthier food choices.
Since HHFKA’s passage, we’ve listened carefully and provided time, flexibility, guidance and resources to help schools serve healthier meals. We’ve worked to establish professional standards to ensure that individuals responsible for the operation of school nutrition programs have the knowledge and skills to provide nutritious and appealing meals. Since 2009, USDA has provided more than $215 million in funding to help states and schools purchase and upgrade kitchen equipment that makes it easier for schools to store and serve fresh fruits and vegetables. That’s in addition to performance-based funding increases of 6 cents per lunch for schools that meet the new meal standards, as well as grants that support training, improved administrative processes and encouraging increased consumption of healthy foods.
Our staff across the country continues to work with schools to help them meet these standards — and it’s paying off. Today, over 97 percent of schools report that they are successfully meeting the updated nutrition standards. Our Team Up for School Nutrition Success Initiative enables schools still working to meet the standards to pair up and learn best practices on topics like menu planning, financial management, procurement, youth engagement tactics and meal presentation from schools that have already been successful. This way, schools can learn from each other in order to make positive strides toward providing financially sustainable healthy school environments with strong student participation. Since HHFKA implementation began, more kids are eating a school breakfast, giving them an important start to the school day. Kids are also now eating up to 16 percent more vegetables and 23 percent more fruit at lunch. And importantly, in a poll conducted by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, respondents at 70 percent of elementary schools reported that students liked the new lunches.
We’re also expanding access for the kids who need it most. The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is an HHFKA provision that allows schools and school districts with high poverty rates to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students, with costs shared between the school and USDA, helping ensure that children in need can get a healthy breakfast and lunch at school. To date, more than 17,000 schools (about 60 percent of eligible schools) in nearly 3,000 school districts are participating, reaching more than 8.1 million students. Thanks to CEP, school lunch participation has increased by an average of 5 percent and school breakfast by an average of 9 percent with some school districts seeing participation increase by as much as 37 percent. And USDA has worked with states and other federal agencies to improve access to healthy food at school with less paperwork for schools and families.
During the academic year, school meals help ensure consistent and adequate access to nutritious food for the nearly 22 million low-income children who receive free and reduced price meals. But when school is out of session, many kids lose sight of their next meal.
Since 2009, USDA and our partners have served more than 1.2 billion summer meals to low-income kids when healthy school meals are not available — an increase of an average of 17 million meals each year. The President’s 2017 budget also calls for an additional $12 billion over 10 years to establish a permanent Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer for Children program — an evidence-based program proven to reduce child hunger. The program would provide at least $45 each month per child on an EBT card during the summer months for all families with children eligible for free and reduced price school meals.
In addition to school and summer meals, USDA continues to fight child hunger and support families by creating meaningful improvements to other key programs such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Under this Administration, USDA has implemented historic improvements to the variety of healthy foods offered in the program by boosting fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy, while expanding support for breastfeeding and nutrition education. Participation in WIC, which serves about half of all babies born in the United States, has improved pregnancy outcomes and resulted in fewer infant deaths, fewer premature births, increased birth weights and less prevalence of obesity for low-income preschool children. Studies examining the impact of the new WIC nutrition standards suggest that the revisions had a positive impact on food purchases among WIC households, improved the retail food environment in low-income areas and may have even reduced obesity among children. In fact, according to the Government Accountability Office, every dollar spent on prenatal WIC participation saves $3.50 in health care costs.
Fresh Produce from the Farm to the School Cafeteria
While USDA has been engaged in farm to school efforts for a number of years, the Department’s Farm to School Program was formally established in 2010 with the passage of HHFKA. Since then, we’ve provided $19.9 million in assistance to 295 projects reaching millions of students in all 50 States, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands to increase the amount of healthy, local food in their schools.
Farm to school programs have increased the number of students purchasing school breakfast and lunch, improved consumption of healthier foods at school and reduced plate waste. Participants in farm to school programs have also seen improved acceptance of and support for healthier school meals, as well as lower school meal program costs.
In addition to helping schools successfully serve up healthier meals in the cafeteria, the Farm to School Program is one of many new USDA-supported efforts that have expanded and strengthened market opportunities for farmers and ranchers. Later this month, USDA will release results from the most recent USDA Farm to School Census, which will demonstrate continued expansion of farm to school programs and increased market opportunities for U.S. farmers, ranchers and producers and the local economies they support.
Continued in Chapter III, Part II.
Cover photo: Students at Hamilton Elementary Middle School in Baltimore, MD enjoy The Summer Food Service Program (SFSP).