March is National Nutrition Month, and a good time to focus on giving kids healthy school food choices. Students usually consume up to half of their daily calories in school, so access to nutritious meals and snacks is important for their health and ability to learn.
Since adopting the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recently updated nutrition standards last year, 90 percent of schools are meeting the standards for lunch and are finding ways to overcome challenges. There is also promising research showing that students are learning to adapt to and enjoy the more nutritious foods when they replace less-healthy items, such as salty snacks or baked goods.
A recent Harvard School of Public Health study found that the updated nutrition standards have led to students eating more fruits and veggies. Unfortunately, calories are cheap, and nutrition can be expensive, but the new standards are empowering some students to be the biggest advocates for healthy change.
From a practical standpoint, even small changes to students’ diets — such as replacing a candy bar with an apple, may reduce their risk of obesity, tooth decay and chronic illness through decreased calorie, fat and sugar intake. When small changes like this catch on and become the new, accepted and expected choices students make, kids will become healthier, better learners.
Though changing the school food landscape presents challenges for school food service staff, there is also emerging evidence that the new healthy snack standards can actually increase school food service revenue. Students may spend less on snacks, but they spend more on meals.
This month and every month, support your school. Let’s continue to create a healthy environment for children and encourage schools to offer only nutritious options to students.
(Hill is a health educator with Bassett Healthcare’s Rural Health Education Network.)