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Best: Build Back Better and keep building to improve school meals

COVID-19 shocked our food system and disrupted programs that, as a nation, we rely on to support children and families who struggle with food insecurity (do not have consistent and reliable access to sufficient, affordable, and nutritious food).

Schools shut down. Committed school nutrition workers, school district leaders, and state education agencies figured out creative ways to continue to feed students, especially the 30 million students who participate in subsidized school meals annually. Most of the children (approximately 80%) who participate in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP) are from low-income households.

COVID-related disruptions to school meals taught us that local and regional supply chains can be more resilient and responsive than long and just-in-time oriented global food chains.

Build Back Better responds to the on-the-ground realities and the resulting best practices that emerged from COVID-19, school meals, and individual and community food security.

The expanded Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) in Build Back Better will help over 26,000 schools provide free school meals to more than 9 million kids through community-level paperwork instead of individual family qualification. This provision will make it easier for schools to plan, prepare, and serve meals and for students and families to participate hassle-free in the program.

The Build Back Better Act will also expand the Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) program to help families purchase food in the summer months. When schools are closed in the summer, and during pandemics and natural disasters, EBT programs help kids receive the nutrition they need.

The Build Back Better Act will also provide short-term grants and incentives via Healthy Food Incentives Demonstrations to improve the nutritional quality of school meals, to decrease the unhealthy food options in the school environment, and to procure local, regional, and fresh foods that culturally and/or produced by limited resourced farmers. And funding via School Kitchen Equipment Grants, prioritizes training and infrastructure needs so schools can prepare more healthy meals.

Support and advocate for the passage of Build Back Better. But let’s not stop there.

What students eat at school matters. Regular student participation in school meals improves children’s nutritional intake. State and national policies to improve the food quality in schools are important in maintaining healthy weights in children, especially as a way to address the widening disparity in rates of obesity between low-income Latinos and African Americans vs Whites.

School meals are required to follow the nutritional guidelines set by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which are currently based on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA). The DGA guidelines outline the recommended quantities of dairy, fruits, whole grains, vegetables, calories, fat, and salt in school meals. Currently, the USDA regulations have no restrictions on added sugar, artificial sweeteners, or synthetic dyes in school meals.

In practice, this means that products such as Marshmallow Mateys (23g added sugar), French Toast and syrup (syrup alone has 32g added sugar), Pillsbury Mini Pancakes with Chocolatey Chip Explosion (14g added sugar), Rich’s Ultimate Breakfast Round Chocolate Chip (18g added sugar), and Yoplait Smooth Yogurts (11g added sugar) are all approved meal options for school breakfasts. American Heart Association recommends that to reduce cardiovascular risks, youth and teens should consume no more than 25g of added sugar per day, limits easily surpassed by one school breakfast especially once paired with a sugar sweetened chocolate milk.

The 2020 DGA, if adopted by the USDA, adds a restriction on added sugar (no more than 10% of calories from added sugar). Currently, added sugars are particularly high in school breakfasts with 9 out of 10 schools exceeding the 2020 DGA limit on added sugar and 7 out of 10 exceeded for school lunches.

In the world concerned about global supply chains, will it be hard for the major food service companies to comply with added sugar restrictions? A recent report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) found that companies are well positioned to meet added sugar restrictions should USDA approve the 2020 DGA updated recommendations.

My son and I read nutritional labels up and down the grocery aisles. We talk about added sugar, foods that we can eat a lot of (fruits, vegetables), and foods that are special treats (sweet cereals, candy, sweetened and flavored yogurt). My food-loving child comes home and tells me about the cereal with the marshmallows that he had for breakfast but didn’t really like, it wasn’t healthy. Should a 6-year-old bear the weight of whether his school meal options are healthy?

The school nutrition folks, especially during Covid, are doing the best that they can within the procurement, staffing, and funding options they have. Let’s create better options. Absolutely, support Build Back Better. And let’s keep building.

Best is the Executive Director of Local Environmental Agriculture Project (LEAP, and a Bloomberg Fellow at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

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