As the First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative approaches its four-year anniversary, she joined with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at an event Feb. 25 to announce proposed guidelines for local school wellness policies as well as increase local participation in school breakfast programs.
“Today folks are really starting to think about what they eat and changing what they feed their families,” the First Lady said. “Healthy habits are becoming the new norm. And nowhere is that more evident than at schools.”
The bipartisan Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 mandated that the USDA set guidelines for what needed to be included in local school wellness policies in areas such as setting goals for nutrition education and physical activity, informing parents about content of the policy and implementation, and periodically assessing progress and sharing updates as appropriate.
As part of local school wellness policies, the proposed guidelines would ensure that foods and beverages marketed to children in schools are consistent with the recently-released Smart Snacks in School standards.
“The new standards ensure that schools remain a safe place where kids can learn and where the school environment promotes healthy choices. USDA is committed to working closely with students, parents, school stakeholders and the food and beverage industries to implement the new guidelines and make the healthy choice, the easy choice for America's young people," Vilsack said.
He said over half of the nation’s school districts are already doing this, or are recommending to make the change.
The American Beverage Association, - whose leading companies include The Coca-Cola Company, Dr Pepper Snapple Group and PepsiCo – welcomed the move and said they have been committed to the health and wellness of Americans.
ABA president and chief executive officer Susan Neely stated. "Our industry helped lead the way with our voluntary national School Beverage Guidelines, which removed full-calorie soft drinks, cut beverage calories in schools nationwide by 90%, and set the stage for the USDA's regulations that take effect in schools this July. Now, we look forward to working with the USDA on their proposed rule to align food and beverage signage in schools with the new regulations as the next logical next step."
School breakfast expansion
USDA also announced it would be expanding school breakfast eligibility for low-income communities.
Vilsack explained that in certain school districts there are some high percentages of low-income families that may not understand how to participate. So for any school district with 40% of more of its students on free lunch programs, it would provide all access to the school lunch program.
USDA estimated that beginning July 1, 2014, more than 22,000 schools across the country—which serve primarily low-income students—will be eligible to serve healthy free lunches and breakfasts to all students. This will help as many as 9 million American children eat healthy meals at school, especially breakfast, which can have profound impacts on educational achievement.
Research shows that kids who eat breakfast in the classroom preform over 17% better on math tests and have fewer disciplinary problems, Vilsack said. “When youngsters are fed well, they learn well,” he said.
He added a pilot program in 11 states has proven the effectiveness of the approach, which brought an increase of 5% of those who started using the free lunch program and 10% for the school breakfast program.