Healthier Cafeterias Thanks to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act

Jan 4, 2016, 10:25 AM, Posted by

Five years ago, the U.S. launched an overhaul of nutrition standards for kids. How far have we come?

A girl selects a healthy snack in a school cafeteria.

Last month marked the fifth anniversary of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. When the law was passed five years ago, our President and CEO Risa Lavizzo-Mourey called it “a long-awaited victory.”

After five years, a lot truly has been accomplished. Ninety-seven percent of schools nationwide are meeting healthier standards for school meals. Significantly more schools are now offering lunches with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Putting healthier options on kids’ trays is an essential step, but the big challenge is making sure kids are eating and enjoying the meals. The good news is research shows that more students are taking fruit with their lunch, they’re eating more of their vegetables and entrees, and they generally like the new meals.

The law also ushered in the first-ever nutrition standards for snacks and drinks sold in school stores, vending machines, and a la carte lines. Those just took effect last year, so we don’t have as much information about how they’re working, but there’s reason to be optimistic. Healthier snacks can help children consume fewer calories and gain less weight over time. Plus they’re good for schools’ bottom lines.

Renton School District in Washington State is a fantastic example of the progress being made. A study published earlier this week found that, after the new standards rolled out, students there chose healthier foods with fewer calories per gram for lunch. The overall nutritional quality of the foods students chose increased by 29 percent, and participation in the lunch program held steady between 2011 and 2014. The study’s authors attributed the improvements to increases in the amount and variety of fruits and vegetables offered.

The overall nutritional quality of the foods students chose increased by 29 percent, and participation in the lunch program held steady between 2011 and 2014.

Renton has taken a lot of different steps to make this progress. They partner with farmers across the state to bring fresh, local produce into schools, and then post photos of the produce on cafeteria walls and menu boards to get kids excited about the new offerings. They also run taste tests so the kids can get some ownership of the menu.

Districts like Renton show what an impact the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act has had on schools. But there has also been progress in providing healthier choices for younger kids. For instance, the foods available through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children now include more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is updating standards for the Child and Adult Care Food Program, which provides meals in child-care and afterschool programs. Together, these programs touch the lives of millions of young children every day.

These changes are commendable, and we must continue to push for progress so that the obesity rate among kids 2 to 5 keeps going down. We can do that by helping to ensure that schools have the support they need to provide nutritious foods and drinks to children so they can learn, grow, and thrive.

Right now, students in third grade have only gone to schools with healthier meals. In a few more years, healthier policies will be in place across the board for children as young as 2. School and child-care looks pretty different for these kids than it does for those just a few years older. As RWJF focuses on helping make sure all children can grow up at a healthy weight, we know it’s essential to continue progress in both of these areas. We are working toward a country in which all children enter kindergarten at a healthy weight, and then the school they’re in is as healthy as possible, no matter where they live.

Occasions like this anniversary remind us just how far we’ve really come in making that vision a reality. Let’s make the next five years even better so we have even more things to celebrate on the tenth anniversary of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

Monica Hobbs Vinluan, JD,  is a senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation working to ensure that all children in the United States have a healthy start. Reader her full bio.