Ten years ago, when I sat down for a school lunch with my first grader, the bread was white, the fruit laden with syrup and the only vegetables on the plate were served from a can. Ten years later, thanks to committed child-health advocates across the country, school lunches look and taste better for that same student – now my high school sophomore.
And thanks to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, today's school lunches consist of more fresh fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, less sodium, fewer calories and saturated fats.
The new requirements are the most comprehensive upgrade in school meals in 15 years — impacting nearly 32 million students across the country.
While some progressive school districts were ahead of the pack before the requirements went into effect, others have lagged behind. Those closer to the starting line than the finish line might end up sprinting to meet the new requirements.
At minimum, in most schools you can expect to see salad bars with a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables or fresh items served directly onto the plate. Whole grains have replaced their more refined (and less-nutritious) counterparts. Districts are purchasing pre-made products with fewer saturated fats and less sodium or, best of all, are cooking meals from scratch to ensure healthier ingredients.
In Adams County School District 14, more than 75 percent of lunches are made from scratch and prepared from fresh, whole ingredients inside the district's kitchens. The meal improvements are dramatic, nutritious and delicious — thanks in large part to the efforts of LiveWell Colorado, the Colorado Health Foundation and other organizations that have supported bold changes in school lunch menus throughout the state.
While not all districts are near the finish line of school meal improvements, many are well on their way — and you can help. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the National School Lunch Program, has drafted a helpful toolkit to engage community members in this work.
As a parent, you can encourage your child to taste the changes, or in most schools, try it for yourself. I think you will be pleased. Changing our perceptions of school lunch may be as pivotal to children's health as changing lunch itself.
I've come a long way from my initial view of school meals after lunch with my first grader a decade ago and hope you will see what's changed and support what is possible.
So, let's celebrate these first steps to support the health of nearly 32 million students — yours and mine included.