What Healthy School Foods Mean to My Family

Sep 29, 2016, 11:00 AM, Posted by

Kids eat up to half their daily calories at school. Today school foods are healthier than ever, and that means a brighter future for our kids.

Students offered healthy foods in school cafeteria.

A truly pivotal moment in my life was when I first joined my daughter Riley for a school lunch date in 2009 when she entered first grade.

We walked through a lunch line that swirled with unhealthy options. Mashed potatoes floated in pools of gravy and ice cream was the most popular item on the menu. Healthy foods were hard to come by—the line was dominated by sweets, chips and other snacks. I was stunned as both a parent and someone who spent my working hours trying to create healthier conditions for kids to thrive in.

Riley is 13 years old now, and my son Reese is 11. Over the years, I’ve continued to meet both of my kids at school for lunch. I’m happy to share, firsthand, how updated nutrition standards and lunchroom champions have transformed our school meal times into something we are excited about!

Policy Changes Usher in a Healthy New Era

In our school, the transformation started in 2012 when USDA’s updated standards for school meals took effect. We started seeing a wider variety of fruits and vegetables and more of them—they were in the line every day of the week. Whole grain breads and brown rice were in, fried foods and meals loaded with unhealthy fats were out.

Schools across the country have made these same changes. USDA’s standards have been in place for five years and, in 2016, 98.5 percent of schools nationwide meet those standards and nearly half of all states are at 100 percent compliance. This is tremendous progress that will impact tens of millions of kids and their families for generations to come.

Catering to the Kids

I remember explaining some of the menu changes to my son Reese and his friends who were in second grade when the standards were implemented. They responded with loud complaints and chants. My own son organized a protest to bring gravy back to the menu! Their outcry prompted me to meet with the principal and get involved. I learned a lot about what the updated nutrition standards actually meant for schools and worked closely with the staff to find healthier foods our kids would actually eat—and even find delicious.

I was thrilled to see these efforts paid off. Reese tried kiwi for the first time at school. Believe it or not, the new and exciting fruits and vegetables our school is offering win out over mashed potatoes every time! Now, my kids love to eat school lunches and I love what they’re eating. Similar reports from schools across the country show how principals, school nutrition directors, food service professionals and parents have worked together to offer healthier meals that kids really enjoy.

Measuring Success

Research shows that these successes are not unusual. The largest, most comprehensive examination of school meals since the updated standards were implemented found that students are choosing healthier foods. The authors determined that the overall nutritional quality of lunches increased by 29 percent under the updated standards and that calorie content per gram decreased by 13 percent. They attributed students’ healthier selections to the increased availability and variety of fruits and vegetables in school meals.

Another study found that more students are choosing fruit in the lunch line and they’re eating more of the vegetables and lunch entrees they choose now that school meals are healthier. The researchers concluded that that students are actually throwing less food away after their schools switched to more nutritious options. Surveys of school leaders nationwide also show that students generally like the healthier lunches being offered in school.

Bringing Healthy Habits Home

Perhaps one of the most powerful results I’ve seen firsthand is how these changes have impacted us at home. Our meals are not complete without a fruit and vegetable. My kids have inspired the whole family to carry refillable water bottles everywhere, they order a side of broccoli when we go out to eat and ask me to put kiwis on my shopping list. These are healthy habits that will last a lifetime.                           

I believe our family is just one among many success stories. Thanks to updated school nutrition standards and champions like the principal and food service professionals at my kids’ school, schools nationwide are offering—and kids are enjoying—healthy meals and snacks that may even inspire changes at home.

Looking Ahead

At the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation we’re working to make sure that all children—no matter where they live—can grow up at a healthy weight. Creating a healthy environment in our nation’s schools is essential for achieving this vision.

We must ensure that schools and school leaders have the support they need to provide nutritious foods and drinks to children so they can learn, grow and thrive. We all have a role to play in continuing the momentum we’ve made to transform our schools. Each of us can find a way to get involved, support healthy changes within our schools and share our successes.

Join the movement to support healthy school foods and share your own story about the impact of healthy school lunches below.

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