Susan Zepeda: Keep school-lunch nutrition rules

June 9, 2014 

Susan G. Zepeda is president/CEO of Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

  • At issue: May 30 New York Times article, "House panel votes to let schools opt out of nutrition guidelines"

As Kentucky students break for summer vacation, some look ahead to summer camp and family trips, while others wonder where their next good meal will come from. School districts and nonprofits struggle to find ways to assure Kentucky's lowest income families can offer their children nutritious food during the summer.

So it is ironic to read that members of Congress are battling to reduce or delay the nutrition standards recently enacted. Yes, to reduce them, through a proposed waiver of the nutrition standards enacted in 2010.

This while Kentucky school districts have stepped up to the plate to answer Kentucky requests for healthier meals — taking advantage of farm-to-school opportunities, experimenting with edible schoolyard programs, and introducing children to fresh fruits and vegetables they may never before have seen or tasted.

The Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky's polling data tell us adults want healthier foods in the schools. Our most recent Parent Poll showed that 88 percent of parents believe it is important that the meals served in their child's school or daycare meet a minimum standard for nutritional value. Despite the importance parents placed on nutritious meals, fewer than one in four described the meals at their children's school or daycare as "very nutritious."

And the 2014 Kentucky Health Issues Poll — which reaches adults throughout the commonwealth — affirms this view is broadly held. When asked specifically about the recently adopted U.S. Department of Agriculture school nutrition standards, more than three-quarters of adults, or 78 percent, favored the new USDA standards for meals served to students. In KHIP results since 2009, adults see childhood obesity as a problem — about half as a serious problem, another third as a problem, but perhaps not as serious.

In Kentucky, the Data Resource Center for Child and Adolescent Health showed that in 2011-2012, 35.7 percent of Kentucky children were considered overweight or obese. Sadly, children living in poverty are at higher risk of obesity, since their diet is less likely to include the nourishing fruits, vegetables and protein they need, and more likely to be heavy on sugar, fats and salt.

Kentucky was a leader in removing junk food from school vending machines. We are known nationally for innovative efforts (such as the Lexington-based Better Bites program) to offer healthy foods at parks and recreational sites not known for their nutritious offerings.

Efforts to transform local corner markets in cities and smaller towns, to offer fresh seasonal produce and to grow local farmers markets, underscore our desire to grapple with the challenges of obesity in our schools and communities.

The reason for the waiver — to accommodate schools struggling to make needed dietary changes — might be more compelling if the major voice for the waiver, as USA Today noted in a May 29 editorial, were not the School Nutrition Association, a trade group of school-food officials backed by such food companies as Coca-Cola, Domino's Pizza and PepsiCo.

Interestingly, USA Today also noted 19 of the association's former presidents have called on Congress to reject the waiver.

We add our voice to this call.

Susan G. Zepeda is president/CEO of Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

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