Each and every school day, over 30 million children participate in USDA’s school meals programs; many of these children consume two or more of their daily meals at school. There’s no denying that school food plays a critical role in children’s diets, and USDA takes this responsibility very seriously. We are committed to doing our part to ensure a healthier next generation!
Given public concern about our children’s current and future health, USDA has issued updated school meal standards stemming from the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. These science-based standards call for increasing fruit, vegetables, low-fat dairy products and whole grains, while at the same time limiting less healthy fats, sugar, sodium and excess calories. Schools across the country are stepping up to the plate. In fact, about 90% of schools across the country are already meeting the updated standards! That’s not to say that their work is done. Some schools have found that they lack the necessary equipment or tools to prepare healthy meals for all students.
Yesterday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack along with Jessica Donze Black, Director of the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project (a collaboration of The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation) hosted a national media call to address the progress our schools are making in implementing the new standards. Ms. Black highlighted the number of schools successfully meeting the meal standards, but also explained that investments in new equipment are needed for further implementation. She detailed the types and costs of kitchen upgrades that each state would need in order to serve healthier meals in all schools.
USDA has already been taking active strides to fill this void and ensure that schools have the support they need to implement the new meal requirements. Just this past December, USDA announced $11 million in grants to 16 states and territories; these grants are specifically to help schools purchase the food service equipment needed to make serving and preparing healthier meals easier and more efficient. This isn’t the first investment that USDA has made, though. Since the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, USDA has provided $135 million in equipment grants, and another $25 million will be available later this spring. It’s also important to note that the President’s budget request for 2015 includes an additional $35 million for school kitchen equipment grants.
USDA remains focused on improving child nutrition and empowering families to make healthier food choices by providing science-based information and advice, while at the same time expanding the availability of healthy food. Secretary Vilsack also touched on these recent USDA commitments during today’s conversation:
- Extending the exemption for school districts with strong meal programs and excess operating balances from the Paid Lunch Equity requirement of HHFKA through the 2014-2015 school year.
- $5.5 million in new grants announced earlier this month for “Smarter Lunchrooms” and other strategies that support the healthier meals. Smarter Lunchrooms use behavioral economics to increase student selection of healthy meal options.
- Offering flexibility on portion sizes for grains and proteins, made permanent in January 2014.
- Expanding Community Eligibility nationwide. Starting this fall, every state in the country will have the option to employ Community Eligibility, an alternative method of operating the school meals program in low-income areas. The community eligibility method has been successfully piloted in 14 states.
- Providing $30 million for up to five demonstration projects to test innovative strategies to prevent hunger and food insecurity among children. The funds will allow USDA to partner with State agencies and Indian Tribal Organizations to develop solutions centered around improving delivery of healthy foods to low-income children through USDA’s nutrition programs.
USDA works closely with schools and partners to address implementation challenges, and to provide grants and technical assistance to overcome barriers. Today’s call reinforced that vital commitment to our children’s health.