It’s hard to believe that before long, it will be back-to-school time again. Like many of you, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been hard at work this summer preparing for the upcoming school year. Over the past six years since the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, a key component of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative, schools across the country have made incredible progress in ensuring all children have access to more nutritious food in school.
Today, joined by Kelly Langston, president of North Carolina PTA, USDA is announcing four final rules that continue the Obama Administration’s historic commitment to building a healthier next generation. While they won’t make any drastic new changes, these rules will ensure the positive changes schools have already made will remain in place and improve children’s health for years to come.
National PTA has advocated for the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs since they were first created, and I am proud to have PTA join us for this announcement. You have been one of USDA’s most valued partners, advocating for changes like stronger nutrition standards and more family and community involvement in local school wellness policies to promote nutrition and physical activity in schools. Thanks to your advocacy in Washington and your leadership in local school districts, 98% of schools nationwide are now meeting updated, science-based nutrition standards and serving meals with more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy—and less sodium—in age-appropriate portion sizes. USDA is also seeing healthier school environments overall for the more than 52 million children who attend schools that participate in the USDA meal programs.
One of the biggest advances made under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is the Smart Snacks in School rule, which ensured for the first time that all food and beverages sold a la carte in the cafeteria, in vending machines, or elsewhere on the school campus meet practical, science-based nutrition standards in-line with the requirements for school lunches and breakfasts. Schools have already implemented the Smart Snacks rule and are offering an impressive variety of options that meet the new standards and are popular with students. The Smart Snacks final rule USDA is announcing today will ensure this progress remains in place.
About 70% of elementary and middle school students are exposed to some form of food or beverage marketing at school. The Local School Wellness Policy final rule, also announced today, ensures that any food or beverage marketed on school campuses during the school day meets the same Smart Snacks standards. National PTA has long been a strong supporter of robust school wellness policies that create healthy, supportive learning environments as children spend a majority of their day in school. National PTA was instrumental in developing this rule, which requires schools to engage parents, students, and community members in the creation of their local school wellness policies, and empowers communities to take an active role in the health of their children. States and local communities will continue to have flexibility in developing wellness policies that work best for them.
The two other rules announced today, the Community Eligibility Provision final rule and the Administrative Review final rule, will codify changes that have improved access to school meals for low-income children and strengthened oversight and integrity in the programs at the State level. The Community Eligibility Provision, another major advance made under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, allows school districts or individual schools with high numbers of low-income children to serve free meals to all students, eliminating the need for parents to fill out a free lunch application and reducing burdensome paperwork for school administrators so they can focus on what’s most important—feeding kids. More than 18,000 high-poverty schools serving 8.5 million students are now participating in this streamlined option, which has been shown to increase student participation in breakfast and lunch.
When kids return to school and Congress returns to work in September, USDA and the Administration will continue to call on Congress to reauthorize the Federal child nutrition programs. The Senate Agriculture Committee has already passed a bi-partisan bill that would protect the progress we have made and earned PTA’s support. The Senate bill would also support grants and loans to help schools purchase the kitchen equipment and infrastructure they need to prepare healthy meals, which National PTA has called for.
Children’s ability to learn in the classroom and reach their fullest potential depends on what we do right now to ensure their health. USDA is grateful for National PTA’s partnership in ensuring every child in America has the opportunity to grow up healthy and succeed in school and later in life. Together, we have supported these healthy changes that will benefit our children—and our country– far into the future.
Tom Vilsack serves as the nation’s 30th Secretary of Agriculture.