National Consumers League

School lunches crucial for growing kids

Students who are hungry or malnourished have trouble concentrating and learning. In fact, students who get healthier meals show a 4 percent improvement in test scores, according to Dr. Michael Anderson, associate professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California, Berkeley. Anderson found that “students at schools that contract with a healthy school lunch vendor score higher on CA state achievement tests, with larger test score increases for students who are eligible for reduced price or free school lunches.”

Indeed, Congress recognized the value of a nutritious meal  when it enacted in 2010 the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act, spurred by First Lady Michelle Obama’s advocacy. In passing that Act, Congress noted that not only did children need regular meals but that healthier choices were better for children’s learning and cognition. So not only are more kids getting food, but the meals are healthier and include fruits and vegetables. As the USDA noted on its website:

Improving child nutrition is the focal point of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The legislation authorizes funding and sets policy for USDA's core child nutrition programs: the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), the Summer Food Service Program, and the Child and Adult Care Food Program. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act allows USDA, for the first time in over 30 years, opportunity to make real reforms to the school lunch and breakfast programs by improving the critical nutrition and hunger safety net for millions of children. 

But under Republican leadership, the House of Representatives, and now USDA Secretary Sonny Purdue, we may be taking steps backward. Perdue wants to roll back rules that required schools to reduce sodium content in meals and offer more whole grains.  In his rollback plan, Purdue is also raising the allowed fat content in flavored milk from fat-free to 1 percent. The Berkeley team led by Anderson has found that diets high in trans and saturated fats – often found in high sodium foods or highly processed foods – have a negative impact on learning and memory. Some may argue that students simply won’t eat fruits or vegetables in defense of rolling back the healthier meals. However, three large studies by Pew Charitable Trusts found that food waste – an issue NCL is deeply involved in – actually declined in 12 Connecticut schools when better nutrition rules were in place.

Making healthier foods more convenient for students decreased consumption of unhealthy foods by 28 percent. Simply moving the salad bar from a corner of the lunchroom to the center increased sale of these vegetables and fruits. In her recent column in the New York Times, columnist Jane Brody noted that, “offering students a choice between two vegetable options and having them pay cash for unhealthy items like desserts and soft drinks … may enhance consumption of healthier foods without reducing revenue or participation in school lunch programs. While the studies are not conclusive, they suggest that with a few simple steps, schools may have an impact on the foods students eat.”

School nutrition programs are helping kids across the country adopt healthier eating habits and become better learners. The proof is ample. Why go backwards now? NCL calls on USDA Secretary Perdue to resist industry pressure to reverse these promising trends in school lunch and other feeding programs for children.