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Healthier School Meals in Jackson, Tennessee

BACKGROUND

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, signed into law in December 2010, charged the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) with updating school food nutrition standards to reflect the latest nutrition science. Updates to the nutrition standards for school meals went into effect at the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year, and schools across the country have been making changes to provide students with healthier choices. The law also provides schools with increased funding, training, and technical assistance to meet the new meals standards; calls for stronger local wellness policies, more transparency, and improved compliance measures; and strengthens USDA’s commitment to other nutrition and wellness programs. USDA is now working to update the standards for snacks and beverages sold outside of meals—in school stores, à la carte lines, and vending machines—which the agency hasn’t revised in more than 30 years.

HEALTHIER SCHOOL MEALS IN JACKSON, TENNESSEE

The updates to the federal meal guidelines were just the latest opportunity to focus on student health in Tennessee’s Jackson-Madison County School System. The district has been working on a healthy café concept to improve school meals for several years now. The organizing concept is a simple one: any decision regarding the café has to enhance or strengthen the school district’s nutrition program. Improving access to and increasing consumption of healthy foods is one of the district’s main goals as a participant in the Healthy Schools Program of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which provides tools and support for schools working to create healthier campuses.

One summer the deep fat fryers were removed from the kitchens. At the beginning of another school year, more whole grains were added to the menu. In one school, a committee including the principal, teachers, parents, and students decided to have murals of healthy scenes painted on the lunchroom walls.

Liberty Tech High School in Jackson has a hydroponic greenhouse, where staff members can grow lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes. When Liberty Tech started using this extremely local produce in its café several years ago, salad bar sales rose by 30 percent. Last November, the Tennessee School Board Association presented the school with an award in recognition of this program. A month later, Liberty Tech students spoke to county commissioners about it. The success of the greenhouse operation has led to its expansion to other schools.

Susan Johnson, school nutrition supervisor for Jackson-Madison County, says the recognition the district has received as a result of these efforts has helped pave the way for implementing the federal meal standards. There has been very little pushback over the years with the healthier meal changes and no major shifts in meal participation rates.

Johnson recommends finding champions within the school community who are passionate about improving nutrition and then supporting their efforts. One local middle school principal is interested in selling healthier options in the school’s vending machines, so Johnson is working with her to make changes.

Johnson says it’s also important for schools to apply for awards and other recognition, as good publicity can build momentum for further changes. Jackson-Madison County has received a USDA Best Practice Award, and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation has recognized several of its local schools. The momentum and recognition pay off. The district has met the new meal guidelines and will be receiving the additional reimbursements soon.

 

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