The Push for Healthier School Lunches

First Lady Michelle Obama’s program, Let’s Move! strives to tackle childhood obesity by implementing healthier food selections for people to practice at home, school, and everywhere else children are exposed to food. In 2012, the Let’s Move! Program was able to get the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create new guidelines to provide nutritious meals to students. Since 1945, President Truman’s National School Lunch Act requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture to continually update and improve health guidelines for school lunches. According to Let’s Move!, First Lady Michelle Obama’s guidelines require schools to include “whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and less fat and sodium.”

Last year, the Michigan legislature passed a bill on behalf of Governor Rick Snyder to allow exemptions surrounding the First Lady’s Healthy-Hunger Free Kids Act. Ben Marquis of The Conservative Tribune reports that the bill passed by a 33-3 vote. The bill allows schools to have two exemptions per week, which totals 72 exemptions for the entire school year. Author of the bill, Republican State Senator Patrick Colbeck states, “nutritional restrictions put in place by the federal government have nothing to do with obesity.” Marquis reported that one of the Democrats who voted against the bill states, “These children, one in eight, are obese not just overweight. It is our obligation to make sure that students have healthy food while they’re in school.” As Kyle Feldscher of MLive reports, the bill allows schools to host three fundraiser bake sales per week. The bake sale items sold must still uphold federal nutritional requirements in order to be sold; if the food items are not equivalent to the standards, then they are not allowed to be sold, but this does not affect bake sales held during off hours, weekends, and off campus.

The Healthy-Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 funds federal school meal and child nutrition programs. During the first few years that the HHFKA was in effect, students were not consuming the healthy meals provided, but instead were throwing the items away. In 2013, the University of Vermont conducted a study in two northeastern elementary schools, observing that students were discarding “... from a quarter cup to more than one-third of a cup per tray.” Joe Calangelo of Consumers’ Research mentions participants of the act wanted to ensure students get “healthier and hearty meals,” but says, “Unfortunately, our government does not have a perfect record of influencing the eating habits of American citizens.” Since the study conducted by the University of Vermont, healthy eating has increased due to the updated guidelines of school meals. A 2014 study by Harvard University’s Public Health revealed students were consuming more fruits and vegetables with the help of the new guidelines.

On June 10, 2015, the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project issued a nationwide poll showing a high percentage of voters in Michigan that highly support the Food and Drug Administration adhering to the national standards for school lunches. Writer and director for Kids’ Safe and Healthful, Jessica Black reported on the impact of the poll results regarding the initiative to serve healthier lunches to students. There were more than seven in 10 voters in support of the Smart Snacks rule, which focuses on food items distributed through vending machines, snack bars, and cafeteria menus; therefore, the rule places restrictions on salts, sugars, and calories in the food and beverages issued to students.

Parents who participated in the polls varied on the importance of nutrition in schools, 77 percent said that offering “fruits, vegetables, and grains” was a great step, while 63 percent thought incorporating locally grown fruits and vegetables would be better. 77 percent also felt that the cooking should take place within the school kitchen to reduce serving prepackaged and preheated foods. Several food service directors have reported that kitchen facilities at their schools lack the proper tools and equipment to accommodate the demands of producing healthier food.

That is not the case in Detroit Public Schools, which now serve fresh fruit, baby green salads, lean meat, low-fat milk, and whole grain breads, where some are distributed from school gardens and local farms. In 2009, DPS became the first school district to offer free-lunch regardless of financial background. Since then, DPS has been working to offer students healthy meals.

Chris Hardman of edibleWOW magazine reported that Betti Wiggins, executive director in Detroit Public Schools, which serves more than 55,000 students and 141 schools, has completely revamped this “nutritional turnaround.” With experience as a chief of nutrition in the District of Columbia and food director in three other states, Betti Wiggins was able to collaborate with an outside food company. Betti Wiggins turned off the deep fryers, increased servings of fresh fruit and vegetables, brown rice, and meatless Mondays where students are served humus with egg and cheese. Betti Wiggins has contributed to a 20 percent increase of produce including potatoes, asparagus, apples, squash, and peaches purchased from local farms. Helping to make nutritious food taste good are nutritional chefs like Kevin Frank, a Detroit native, who graduated from the Schoolcraft Community College Culinary Arts Program. Wiggins issued a farm-to-school program, which contains 76 school gardens.

According to data from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Michigan was one of the eight states selected to participate in the pilot program, which aims to get school districts to implement locally-grown fruits and vegetables into school meals. Vice president of program strategy, Carla D. Thompson confirms that “the USDA grants will ensure that more children have the opportunity to thrive in school and life.” The Michigan Good Food Charter formulated in 2010, has plans to source 20 percent of their food to Michigan growers, producers, and processors to distribute to several Michigan institutions such as schools, early child care and education centers by the year 2020.

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