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A Healthier School Nutrition Environment: Can It Work?

Catherine is a senior communications professional helping social change organizations tell their story in powerful ways. She has expertise in public health, environmental stewardship, philanthropy and education. Follow her on Twitter @CatBrozena

The 2013-2014 school year holds new promise for creating an environment where more healthy foods are made available to school students. September marks the second year in which U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition standards will be rolled out in schools across the country, encouraging cafeterias to provide more whole grains, low-fat milk, more fruit and a healthier mix of vegetables in their offerings. This year those standards not only apply to school lunches but the school breakfast programs as well.

Additionally, competitive foods — items sold in school vending machines, snack bars, school stores and other locations — will be subject to the new nutrition standards as well, all in an attempt to surround students with a “healthier school nutrition environment.”

All of these changes have raised questions about the long-term sustainability of offering healthier, often more costly, food choices in schools and whether students would actually eat such foods. Recent media attention has highlighted schools who are choosing to back out of the National School Lunch Program because too many students were rejecting the healthier foods and cafeterias were losing money.

A recent feature post on the USDA’s website explores the effects of the new nutrition standards, how food costs have been impacted, and whether students are changing their eating habits in favor of the healthier foods. The article also highlights recent findings on the impact of influencing students’ food choices by altering the environment in which those foods are offered — placing them in more attractive packaging and convenient locations and positioning cafeteria personnel to nudge and encourage students to take the healthier offerings.

“Since many children—especially low-income students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals—eat half their daily intake at school, the potential benefits from improved school meals and healthier competitive foods on school campuses could be considerable…Balancing nutrition, acceptance, and cost in school foodservice operations is a major challenge. Innovation by the food industry to develop and promote appealing, affordable, and healthier cafeteria fare may make the task easier. Behavioral economics studies suggest that, with a little nudging, kids are more likely to try healthier foods. Eliminating less nutritious competitive foods could also encourage children to eat the new, healthier meals.”


Read the full article on the USDA’s website.

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