The United States Department of Agriculture is turning its back on America’s 30 million schoolchildren by making their school meals less healthy.
This month, the department is rolling back nutritional standards on school lunch for millions of kids. Established in 2010, these standards were championed by former first lady Michelle Obama as part of the bipartisan Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, and they required more whole grains, lower sodium levels, and more fruits and vegetables in our nation’s school lunches. These changes, implemented in 2012, were based on recommendations from pediatricians, nutritionists, and school food experts—and brought school meals into the modern era by making the most revolutionary updates to the nutrition standards since the 1970s. A recent study by the USDA demonstrated that the majority of U.S. schools were serving healthier meals thanks to the 2010 legislation.
Despite this evidence—and in defiance of nutrition and pediatric experts —the USDA is now allowing schools to ease up on the restrictions to sodium, serve more refined grains, and bring back sugary, flavored milk. With more than 10 million students on track to develop diet-related diseases, we think kids deserve better.
There are more than 100,000 school cafeterias in America—seven times the number of McDonald’s restaurants in the United States—which means school meals play an incredibly powerful role in how kids connect to what they eat. One in five children in the U.S. struggle with hunger, and many kids consume as much as half of their calories through school lunches.
School meals offer a powerful opportunity to change the trajectory of the health of an entire generation. Giving kids access to real food is the single best thing that can be done to both prevent diet-related disease and provide all the benefits of good nutrition. There is no place more important than our school cafeterias, a place where many kids get their only dependable meal in a day.
In the absence of governmental requirements, other organizations are stepping up. At the forefront is the 11-year-old nonprofit FoodCorps, which connects kids to healthy food in school through education and by advocating for larger changes in policy, culture, and the school-food marketplace. FoodCorps’s in-school programs, which feature hands-on learning and steer students toward the healthiest choices in their cafeterias, help kids access healthy food and get them excited to eat it too. Last year alone, FoodCorps reached 160,000 students, supported 500 school gardens, introduced 275 new foods to cafeterias, and engaged 5,500 volunteers.
Almost a decade ago, we launched Sweetgreen in Schools, an initiative focused on teaching students about nutrition, fitness, sustainability, seasonality, and eco-literacy. This program, which has evolved into a series of interactive classes, has since introduced the benefits of healthy eating to thousands of students, with a focus on those in underserved communities. This year, we took these efforts a step further by partnering with FoodCorps to reimagine school cafeterias and commit to their reWorking Lunch initiative, which leverages the power of more than a dozen industry, philanthropic, non-profit, and school-district partners to find ways to offer kids healthier and more sustainable school food.
Through this partnership, we are providing $1 million in funding to support the next phase of FoodCorps’s work in cafeterias. We’re helping them use a human-centered design approach to implement taste tests in school, where students can try foods prepared several different ways and vote on their favorite using an iPad. We’re also helping to create flavor bars, where students can experience fruits and vegetables with new spices and herbs. In other words, we’re piloting new ways to guide students to experiment with real food with the goal of helping them make healthier choices every day. The initial prototype for these tests is already in the cafeterias of five schools that encompass a geographically and socioeconomically diverse set of students. Sweetgreen and FoodCorps plan to reach up to 50 schools and 22,000 elementary school students by the 2020–21 school year, and we’ll grow from there.
But we still need the government to set stronger standards on behalf of kids. The next moment for us to take action is to advocate for stronger policies within Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR), the legislative process that updates the laws governing all child nutrition programs, including school meals. CNR, which is set to take place this fall, is the most important opportunity to call for legislators to support schools in serving healthier, more delicious food to their students. Ahead of CNR, we must urge Congress to oppose any further weakening of the nutrition standards and to require school meal and snack standards to align with the national Dietary Guidelines. In the meantime, FoodCorps, Sweetgreen, and other organizations are supporting the many school food-service heroes, including nutrition service directors, who hold themselves to higher standards than what the government requires—all in an effort to keep kids healthy.
The choices we make every day about what we eat and where it comes from have a lasting impact on our communities and the world. Let’s move forward, not roll back.
Nicolas Jammet is the cofounder and Chief Concept Officer of Sweetgreen.