Just as schools opened this year, many Americans opened their morning newspapers or visited their online news sites to headlines proclaiming that schools around the nation were dropping out of the National School Lunch Program.
Articles quoted school administrators and food-service directors blaming the improved nutrition standards for being difficult to implement. Students were rejecting the healthier lunches, they said; schools were losing money, and some kids were choosing to go hungry rather than try the healthier lunches.
The School Nutrition Association, whose statistics reporters used in their articles, promptly issued a clarification. Janey Thornton, Deputy Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, the division of USDA that runs the $11 billion school lunch program, launched a swift, vigorous rebuttal, followed by a short video touting positive responses to the new meal plan.
Although the percentage of schools abandoning the program nationally is low (around one percent), at least two states, New Hampshire and Minnesota, report even fewer — only a single school leaving the program in each state.
Extension nutrition staff in both states have a long involvement with their states’ school lunch programs. As reasons for their states’ relatively smooth transition to the healthier lunch standards, they cite statewide collaboration among the many agencies and organizations involved with child health, and a long period of preparation to ensure buy-in on the part of school administrators, teachers, food-service directors and staff, parents — and, of course, students.
“Since 2004, our Healthy Schools NH program has been working with school nurses, teachers and other staff on ways to improve the overall nutrition and fitness environment in their schools,” says Debbie Luppold, professor and youth and family specialist with the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension (UNHCE), who manages UNHCE’s Nutrition Connections Program.
“We’re a small enough state to allow state, county and local agencies and organizations to collaborate,” she says. “Nutrition Connections partners with the department of education bureau of nutrition, SNAP and WIC, Head Start, and many more.
“We work with school wellness committees (required since 2006 of all schools participating in the federal school lunch program), providing them with assessment tools, training opportunities and resources for parents. We also do direct education in schools with 50 percent or more of low-income children.”
One interesting feature of the New Hampshire program, Luppold says: “Dietetic interns from the University of New Hampshire preparing to become registered dietitians have been conducting taste-testing among children in some schools under the supervision of Nutrition Connections staff as part of USDA’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. This helps with acceptance when you put the tested foods on the menu.”
The Dr. Crisp elementary school in Nashua has received national attention, including a visit from First Lady Michelle Obama, for transforming the school’s nutrition environment. Robin Abodeely, the school nurse who spearheaded the transformation, has always been quick to credit the school’s partnership with UNH Cooperative Extension as an important key to their success.
Mary Caskey, Extension associate professor and educator in health and nutrition at the Center for Family Development at the University of Minnesota, says a 2010 grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention enabled a statewide collaboration among eight state government, professional and educational agencies–including Minnesota Extension–called Great Trays.
“Extension knew how to provide interactive, hands-on trainings with great materials, where participants have the opportunity to share with each other,” says Caskey, who had been working with school food-service staff for several years before the Great Trays partnership was organized.
“We created the package of training materials; Extension educators taught with trainers from the Minnesota School Nutrition Association (MSNA) to do two daylong trainings offered across the state.
“Our educators provided the nutrition information and the research behind the new school meal guidelines; the MSNA trainers focused on topics such as kitchen equipment, farm-to-school and cooperative buying.”
We’ve emphasized no or low-cost ways to redesign the cafeteria and serving lines, “as a way to nudge students towards healthier choices,” she says.
Caskey says Minnesota Extension has developed a 10-hour face-to-face nutrition training and a 10-hour online course based on the Great Trays training available soon on the Minnesota Extension website.
Another great resource
Smarter Lunchrooms Cornell University project creating sustainable, research-based lunchrooms that guide smarter choices.
Released September 20, 2013