September 4, 2019

Healthy School Meals Boost Student Achievement

USDA Data Shows School Nutrition Standards are Leading to Healthier Meals and Increased Participation 

Healthy (and not hungry!) students are better learners. As the bell rings on a new school year, Healthier Generation would like to express our gratitude to school nutrition staff across the nation. These unsung heroes of the education system ensure that millions of students receive healthy meals that equip them to reach their full academic potential.  

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), close to five million lunches and three million breakfasts were served to children across the nation in 2017. The vast majority of these meals met the strong nutrition standards put into place under the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA).  

Chris Burkhart, executive director of school nutrition services at the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, serves meals to over 40,000 students a day. “The nutrition standards actually helped us jumpstart our program,” says Burkhart. “The challenges made us think differently about our menu and implementation. Overall the impact was very positive.” 

On April 23, 2019, the USDA published its School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study, the first study of its kind since the updated nutrition standards went into effect. The proof is in! USDA’s report provides evidence of the success that Healthier Generation has seen across the nation over the past seven years — simply put, the school nutrition standards are working. School meals are healthier than before HHFKA and compliant meals don’t cost more to produce.  

There have been other exciting results, too. Increasing healthy meal components such as fruit and vegetables has led to partnerships with more local and regional farmers. As a result, students make connections to where their food comes from and community involvement and support has increased. 

“There is a positive correlation between knowing where your food comes from and increases in consumption,” says Burkhart. “Our students love our local apples and other produce. We have definitely seen an increase in participation due to our fresh local produce.”  

Boy with school lunch

Increased meal participation has been seen across the nation. USDA’s study demonstrated that participation was higher in schools with meals of higher nutritional quality and that waste has not increased since the nutrition standards were implemented. This is critical to ensuring that students have access to and consume the nutritious meals that they need. 

This is particularly true in schools that allow students to choose the components of their meals (offer vs. serve). According to Timikel Sharp, executive director of nutrition services at the Bibb County School District in Georgia, “When school nutrition staff provide information and directional materials to students, they get it. They learn how to count their components and what they can decline, thereby reducing waste.”  

School meals are an essential part of the school day. Healthier Generation believes that all children should have access to school meals to support their learning and their overall health. We provide schools with training, tools and resources to implement healthier meals that meet or exceed the national standards. For more ideas on how to promote school meal participation, check out our nutrition promotion training.  

Have questions about meeting the requirements of the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs or need new menu ideas or marketing strategies? Reach out to our National Nutrition Advisors Carol Chong and Stephanie Roberts for school nutrition technical assistance and support!