Hi Readers! Today we have one of our Registered Dietitian Advisors, Neva Cochran, blogging. Enjoy!
I recently read an article online from the UK Daily Mail titled, “Jamie Oliver health crusade leads to fewer pupils eating school meals.” It seems the popular British chef and TV personality has not achieved the desired result from his campaign to improve the nutritional quality of England’s school meals that he deemed unhealthy.
According to the article, more than half of primary and two-thirds of secondary school students are rejecting Oliver’s “healthier” menus. Participation in school lunch is below the level it was prior to his intervention: 44.1% of English primary school kids and 37.6% of those in secondary schools ate school meals this year compared to 44.9% for both in 2004. His attempt to bring his crusade to this side of the Atlantic has been met with resistance from school districts. And, in my opinion, that’s a good thing because school meals in the U.S. are one of the best nutritional bargains around.
In July, I attended the annual national conference of the School Nutrition Association, working in an exhibit booth for one of my clients. This meeting in Nashville attracted over 3,000 school nutrition professionals ranging from registered dietitian directors of large metropolitan school district nutrition programs to women and men who work on the front lines, preparing and serving meals to kids in big city and small town schools across the country.
These are some of the most dedicated, passionate and caring individuals I’ve met in all of the many areas of dietetics practice I’ve encountered in 30+ years as an RD. And what they do is amazing. School meals must meet strict USDA nutrition guidelines for calories, fat, sodium, vitamins and minerals as well as standards for food safety. Average reimbursements rates of only about $1.60 for breakfast and $2.75 for lunch must cover food, labor, supplies and equipment costs. This is no easy feat and they do it with a positive attitude and great concern and care for the students they serve.
School meal programs increasingly serve more nutrient-rich foods and beverages, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and lean proteins according to the “Position of the American Dietetic Association, School Nutrition Association, and Society for Nutrition Education: Comprehensive School Nutrition Services” published in November 2010. So rather than being the problem, school nutrition programs are the solution to providing nutritious meals and combating childhood obesity, as the results of several recent studies attest:
- Consumption of school meals is positively related to children’s intakes of key food groups at lunch and breakfast
- School meal program participation is associated with reduced prevalence of nutrient inadequacy.
- School lunch participants eat fewer calorie-dense foods than nonparticipants. In fact, calorie density is highest when kids eat at locations away from home and school.
- Participating in a school breakfast program improves daily nutrient intake and better nutrient intake is associated with significantly improved academic performance and decreased hunger.
- School breakfast programs improve attendance rates and decrease tardiness and, among the most undernourished children, school breakfast improves academic performance and the ability to learn.
- There is no evidence that school breakfast or lunch programs contribute to rising rates of childhood obesity. In fact, school breakfast participation was associated with a significantly lower BMI. School breakfast participation may be a protective factor, by encouraging students to consume breakfast more regularly.
Bottom line: school meals are a great deal for kids both nutritionally and economically. They go hand-in-hand with promoting a healthy body and healthy mind that helps students feel, perform and learn better.