HFLC Board member Alice Yoder of Lancaster General Health wrote in defense of healthy school lunches in LancasterOnline recently. Among other interesting things, Yoder points out that that more than 113 Lancaster schools now have gardens where fruits, vegetables and herbs are grown year-round. Changing kids’ taste buds and preferences takes time, she says, and involves the whole family. Yoder says that the school gardens enable food service directors to use herbs students have grown to enhance the flavor of their daily offerings. HFLC agrees with Yoder, the World Health Organization and virtually all of the child nutrition and behavioral science experts that changing the school food environment alone had a positive outcome on weight or children’s eating habits. We support the  Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act and are working to expand access to nutritious free and reduced school meals throughout Lancaster County.

Read Alice Yoder’s LancasterOnline op-ed (October 15, 2015) below:

April Kelly-Woessner’s op-ed (“Coercing kids to eat healthier school lunches doesn’t work”) regrettably ignores the encouraging evidence showing how the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act has improved child health.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s school nutrition standards ensure that children have access to a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables at school. Schools have successfully improved children’s eating habits by implementing the federal school nutrition standards along with nutrition education, culturally appropriate food choices and kid-friendly food displays.

According to a 2014 Harvard School of Public Health study, the requirement that kids take a fruit or vegetable at lunch increased both fruit and vegetable consumption and did not result in increased average food waste per person. In many school districts (including in Los Angeles, Dallas and Cincinnati), more low-income children participated in the free Healthy School Lunch Program after the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act was implemented.

In a World Health Organization review, 17 of 18 studies reported that changing the school food environment alone had a positive outcome on weight or children’s eating habits.

We agree that social science research can help us understand behavior and motivation to improve healthy eating. To support the federal school nutrition standards, the USDA funds the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement at the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition. The Smarter Lunchrooms Movement conducts social science research on children’s food choices and helps schools design lunchrooms to promote healthy eating. The USDA also provides funding for schools to put this research into practice through their Team Nutrition program.

In 2015, Team Nutrition funded programs across the country —including gardens where children grow and harvest local foods, culinary training and kid-friendly menu planning for school staff, and field trips to local farmers markets.

Sarah Amin, the author of the recent study that found an increase in food waste, told The New York Times: “We’re advocating that the guidelines be supplemented with other efforts —taste testing, slicing fruits and vegetables to make them easier to eat, serving vegetables with a dip, recognizing what fruits and vegetables children already prefer. …We’re optimistic that in the long run, these guidelines will accomplish what they set out to do.”

Locally, several districts have taken steps to supplement lunch programs and educate students and their families regarding the importance of making healthy food choices not only at school but also at home. More than one-third of the 113 public schools in Lancaster County have gardens where fruits, vegetables and herbs are grown year-round. Students are actively involved in planning, planting, harvesting and day-to-day care of the beds. Gardens also enable food service directors to use herbs students have grown to enhance the flavor of their daily offerings. In some instances, a local chef is invited to talk to students and prepare food samples for students during their lunch period, using crops from the garden.

One district challenged students studying family and consumer science to create a recipe meeting the nutritional standards set forth by the government. The students taste-tested three entries and voted on a winning recipe, which was then incorporated into the school’s lunch rotation. If students have input and are actively involved in growing and preparing their food, they will be more willing to try it.

During the 2014-15 school year, more than 175 schools in Pennsylvania qualified for the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. Elementary schools with the highest free and reduced lunch enrollment are eligible for the federally assisted initiative that provides free fresh fruits and vegetables to students in participating schools during the school day. The goal is to improve children’s overall diet and create healthier eating habits to impact their present and future health. This program helps schools create healthier school environments by providing healthier food choices and expanding the variety of fruits and vegetables that are accessible to the students. Local food-service directors who have participated in the program noticed a significant increase in the amount and type of fruits and vegetables that were being consumed during lunch.

I encourage teachers, administrators and parents to visit smarterlunchrooms.org to learn more about healthy school meals and to get involved with your school’s wellness council to promote healthy school environments.

Alice Yoder is the director of Community Health and Wellness at Lancaster General Health.