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School Nutrition Update

Spring may be on our minds, but the access to fresh, locally grown edible plants that it brings will be limited for most of the country over the next several months, as winter’s long finger stretch into March.

And for schools and childhood nutrition advocates working to get healthier, fresher food into the 31 million school meals served each day, this poses yet another challenge to an already difficult situation. But two recent changes in Washington are making it easier to get healthy food to lunch lines around the country.

In December, President Obama signed the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR), known as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which helps fight child hunger through federally funded school meals and nutrition programs. Though [the bill][2] far from perfect, it is a major step in reversing the trend which has left American public school students being served some of the least healthy, most industrial, processed and frankly tasteless, food one can find in the US food system.

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Although these standards apply to public schools across the nation, the problem exists in private Jewish day schools as well. In September, the Forward reported, that children in two Chicago-area day schools had higher obesity rates than non-Jewish children who attended other schools. Most days schools, “don’t serve hot lunches, nor do they have time in a school day packed with both secular and religious classes to add a great deal of organized physical activity.”

In addition to directing the Administration and school districts to improve nutritional standards for all foods sold or provided during the school day, the bill increases incentives for schools to change their food. For schools that are building the capacity to partner with local farms and bring fresh, local produce to students, the bill provides the first ever federal farm-to-school funding, through a $5 million competitive grant program.

The second shift in Washington this winter came from the Secretary of Agriculture, who announced a proposal for new nutrition standards for national school lunch and breakfast programs, which the government hopes to implement quickly in conjunction with CNR.

The new nutrition standards are based on a 2009 report from the Institute of Medicine and like CNR, they are an improvement, but are far from perfect. While, they increase the required servings of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, they also rely on some highly processed foods like margarines and low-fat salad dressing in order to balance the various nutrient requirements. The public has the opportunity to comment on the changes through April 13th. Once finalized, the standards are expected to be implemented in individual districts starting in the 2012-13 school year.

It is likely that the associations of producers (such as the Dairy Council), and school food industry will continue to lobby the federal government as they have done in the past, underscoring the importance of parents, teachers, and schools to exercise their right to weigh in through the public comment process about the importance of providing fresh, healthy food in schools.

For many kids these sorely needed tweaks to school food policies cannot come soon enough, just as the beginning of spring cannot come soon enough for creative school food staff attempting to develop mass-produced, kid-friendly cole slaw with local cabbage and stretching the statute of limitations on butternut squash throughout the winter.

Aliza R. Wasserman studied food and agriculture policy and works for a local public health department. She is the founder of the three-year old “Farm-to-Shul” effort based at the Moishe Kavod House in Brookline, MA.

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