It's that time of the year again. Nebraska students are back in school, and there are plenty of reasons for kids — and parents — to be excited, including new classes, new teachers and new, healthier school lunches.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) updated standards for the federal school nutrition program last year, so now school lunches emphasize more healthy fruits, vegetable, and whole grains and less sugar and saturated fat. I think most parents, teachers and school administrators would agree that this is a welcome change.
Yet, some critics claim that a new trend is emerging: that students are skipping the healthier lunches altogether resulting in lost revenue for schools, and causing districts to drop out of the federal lunch program.
Guest blogger John Skretta is superintendent of the Norris School District in Firth, Neb. He's also a father to four school-aged children.
The truth is that this is far from a trend. The vast majority of schools are serving healthier school meals—and seeing success.
The Norris School District has worked hard to carefully integrate a range of more healthful options over the past several years, and we are seeing promising results with the new program. In fact, the number of students buying school meals in our district has increased, particularly with the integration of a popular “Grab and Go” school breakfast program.
The "Grab and Go" program offers a delicious breakfast that meets all the same nutritional requirements of a school breakfast but is served “on the go,” meaning students can consume their breakfasts either in the cafeteria or back in their classrooms.
Some of the criticism directed at the new school lunch requirements has been focused on complaints that students are "going hungry." This criticism is a moot point in the many districts like Norris that utilize the USDA's “Offer versus Serve” program. This program gives students virtually unlimited access to a daily fresh fruit and vegetable bar.
Students can help themselves to all they care to eat of the most nutritious and freshest items on a daily basis. This includes a range of options that vary depending on what is seasonally available, including fresh strawberries, whole apples, snap peas, sliced bell peppers, baby carrots, spinach leaf lettuce and much more.
And we've made sure to engage our students in the process. Whether it's introducing kiwi fruit in our elementary school snack program or featuring whole-grain crust on the popular pizza we serve at lunch, students have been key to generating excitement for healthier items. As a result, the healthier school lunches have been met with a collective shrug.
The reason: students have already embraced healthier habits.
Despite some signs of improvement, childhood obesity remains a major problem across the country. A recent report found that in Nebraska 13.8 percent of young people ages 10 to 17 are obese. Many kids get up to half of their daily calories at school, and for far too long many of those calories have been unhealthy ones. Studies have shown, however, that when good nutrition and increased physical activity are prioritized in school and in the classroom, learning improves.
The right path is obvious. Providing our kids with healthy options throughout the school day is an important, necessary step to ensuring they have a healthier future. As a school superintendent and parent of four active boys, I know that encouraging kids to choose healthier options over cookies, chips, and breaded, processed entrees isn't always easy, but you stick with it because it's the right thing to do.
I am grateful that the USDA updated nutrition standards to help make sure all students have healthier meals and snacks throughout the school day. Change takes time. It is our job — my job as well as the job of our school food service staff and teachers — to help students understand why healthy eating now is an important strategy for success in the classroom and beyond.
I urge fellow parents, teachers, and school administrators to not believe negative hype around the updated USDA standards, but instead simply give the new healthier lunches a chance.