The absence of nutritional school cafeteria food has always been the brunt of jokes and has sparked controversy over the quality of food being served to kids across the country. Many of the meals provided consist of overly processed foods and studies link the need for healthier options as being critical to children’s health. However, there has been a dramatic shift in the quality of food served today.
Through advocacy to ensure that children are provided with healthier options and to end childhood obesity, the “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010” was a cornerstone of the “Let’s Move!” initiative. This act established multiple policies to improve the quality of food and beverages served to youth across the country and strengthen nutrition standards through many federal food assistance programs
that had been established decades ago.
The meals provided to students through these Federal school nutrition and assistance programs are administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and state agencies, by reimbursing schools that serve healthy meals to students. The USDA supports domestic nutrition programs and American agricultural producers by procuring fresh products for use in schools and other institutions. Programs exist to help improve food at schools, and some are taking bold, inspiring steps. Parents, educators, students, and everyone can take action to help students have access to healthier foods.
Healthy Nutritional Guidelines for School Kids
School-age children (ages 6 to 12) need healthy foods and nutritious snacks. They have a steady but slow rate of growth and usually eat 4 to 5 times a day including snacks. Many food habits of what they like or dislike is determined before age 12. Family, friends, and the media affect kid’s food choices and eating habits. Eating healthy after-school snacks is important, too, as they may contribute up to one-fourth of the total calorie intake for the day.
The recommended amount of grains is 6-11 servings per day. These foods are made from wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley, or other cereal grain products. Examples include whole-wheat, brown rice, and oatmeal. Aim for mostly whole-grains.
Eat Your Veggies! The recommendation for vegetables is 3-5 serving per day. A variety of colorful vegetables, including dark green, red, and orange vegetables, legumes (peas and beans), and starchy vegetables.
Any fruit or 100% fruit juice counts as part of the fruit group. The recommended amount of fruits is 2-4 servings of fresh, canned, frozen, or dried, and may be whole, cut up, or pureed. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children age 7 to 18 should limit juice to 8 ounces or 1 cup of juice per day.
Not all kids can consume dairy products due to allergies or lactose intolerance. However, there are some alternatives such as Almond Milk, Oat Milk, and others to choose from. The recommended 2-3 servings of dairy can be yogurt, cottage cheese, or natural cheese. Focus on fat-free or low-fat products, as well as those that are high in calcium.
Choose low-fat or lean meats of 2-3 servings of 2-3 ounces of cooked lean meat, poultry, or fish per day. Vary protein routine such as peas, eggs, nuts, seeds, and beans. Nuts and seeds are an excellent source of protein, however, several kids have food allergies, which is why it’s important for schools to provide healthy protein choices and alternatives.
5 Reasons the Quality of School Food Matters
There are a lot of educational resources out there promoting the reasons why a healthy diet is a necessary preventative health measure to improve and manage health, which is why parents, students, and schools should care about school food reform. We know that healthy eating is directly correlated to health and the need to commit to healthy food at school matters.
- Nutrition and Health
Studies show children who are hungry or undernourished are unable to focus and have a difficult time learning. Swapping processed foods for real ingredients that aren’t loaded with saturated fat and sugar ensures kids are getting key nutrients their bodies need to grow.
- Academic Performance
Deficiencies in vitamins and minerals are shown to diminish cognitive abilities and mental concentration. School lunches that are high in fruits, vegetables, and whole foods provide an abundance of vitamins and minerals, which can lead to better grades and test scores.
- Improved Behavior
Studies show that chemical additives in processed food and high levels of sugar in diets have a negative impact on children’s behavior. Sugar by far is the biggest factor that takes place in this category. The need to remove sugar from school campuses made national headlines when the USDA ruled to remove vending machines that dispensed sodas and junk foods in order to promote healthier food in schools.
- Reducing Obesity
Obesity rates among children nearly tripled from the 1970s. Data from 2015–2016 show that nearly 1 in 5 school-age children and young people aged 6 to 19 years in the United States are obese. Research shows that the availability of healthier school lunches has already improved kids’ eating habits. One study found that offering more variety led to healthier choices; each additional fruit option was associated with a 9.3% increase in the number of fruit servings selected by students
- Better Habits for the Future
Researchers say that the eating patterns kids develop early in life typically follow them into adulthood. Approximately one-third of the food children consume is at school. For this reason, it is important that children have a daily balanced diet, either through packed healthy snacks and lunches or through a healthy meal plan.
The Future of School Food
There is no doubt that the changes implemented to improve the quality of school food through USDA guidelines and other programs advocating for healthier food for school-age kids has been dramatic. However, there are still challenges. With environmental changes, social and economic challenges, and shrinking resources it’s important that food nutrition awareness continues. Empowering parents, students, and schools can be a key component to achieving sustainable nutrition for all.
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