First Lady Michelle Obama recently honored the work of 1,273 schools that participated in the Healthier U.S. School Challenge at the White House. The initiative focuses on recognizing the efforts of schools participating in the National School Lunch Program, which are using improved nutrition and more physical activity to create healthier school environments. While the Challenge has been around since 2004, Mrs. Obama breathed new energy into the initiative when she included it into the Let’s Move campaign in 2010.
One of the honorees, the Kunsberg School, in Denver, was recognized for its work in feeding the 90 chronically ill students from grades K-8, who all participate in the school lunch program there. Each student at the school receives a free nutritious breakfast and lunch that includes fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as low-fat and non-fat milk every school day.
While it can be challenging to make strides in improving the nutrition of children at a school, Kunsberg has benefited from being a part of the National Jewish Health campus and having access to its resources. According to Joe Reid, the director of education at the school, one of the staff nutritionists at National Jewish Health oversees all the planning and preparation of the meals for the students. “Health, nutrition, 40 minutes per day of physical education, and academic achievement are priorities at Kunsberg; and the school has made a conscious effort to make positive changes that carry over into each child’s lifestyle,” Reid says.
Many school districts around the country see the links between providing healthy food to children and making a dent in the childhood obesity epidemic. According to a national survey by the School Nutrition Association released in August, 98 percent of school districts now offer fresh fruits and vegetables, and 89 percent offer salad bars or pre-packaged salads. 63 percent provide vegetarian meals. Whole-grain foods are readily accessible at 97 percent of schools. The findings show considerable progress in improving the quality of meals served to nearly 32 million children on school days.
But improving nutrition is not always easy. Cheryl Danley, outreach specialist for the C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at Michigan State University, and an IATP Food and Community Fellow, says that school districts are being creative to address the healthy eating needs of students, while holding the line on budgets. “Costs do not need to be a barrier,” Danley says. She points to the Detroit Public Schools, which have been able to institute meatless meal days, to help offset the costs of providing fresh local foods. And while farm-to-school programs and healthy meals are in the national spotlight now, Danley says “many food service directors have been trying bring this into the school all along.“