Surveys show support for healthy school meal standards, staff training

By Whitney Forman-Cook

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Aug. 18, 2015 - The higher nutrition standards for school meals imposed by the Obama administration retain strong public support, according to a new poll. 

However, a second survey released Tuesday suggests many public school nutrition directors have been struggling to get their staff trained to carry out the standards, which were implemented under direction of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA).

A poll commissioned by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, conducted in May and released Tuesday, found that 48 percent of the 1,200 randomly selected adults surveyed by phone thought the new healthy meal standards should be strengthened. Thirty-eight percent said they should be kept the same, while 7 percent said they should be lowered.

When asked to rank the factors they believed most contributed to childhood obesity, respondents blamed less recess time and fewer physical education programs in school over other factors, including school cafeteria food or urban food deserts - inner city areas where it's hard to find healthy food.

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More than two-thirds of those polled indicated the nutritional quality and healthfulness of their local public school's cafeteria offerings was good (54 percent) or excellent (13 percent), compared to 26 percent in an April 2010 Kellogg survey. Twenty percent said the nutrition of school meals was fair (16 percent) or poor (4 percent). 

Over the past four years - the time since the nutrition law was enacted - 57 percent of those polled said cafeteria food has improved, while 20 percent said it has stayed the same, and 9 percent said it declined. 

The second report, commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trust and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, surveyed public school food service professionals during the 2012-2013 school year - the first year schools were required to incorporate more fruits and vegetables, lean protein, whole grains and low-fat dairy products into school breakfasts and lunches under nutrition law.

Among its most significant findings, the survey found that a mere 37 percent of food directors have budgets for the staff development and training they say is crucial to meeting the new standards mandated by the law and set by USDA. Seventy-two percent of the respondents said state agencies weren't willing to pick up the slack either.

The survey also found that a smaller subset of school food directors (29 percent) and food service managers (7 percent) had completed formal bachelor's degrees in food-related sciences, but most directors (59 percent) and managers (76 percent) were receiving on-the-job training for standards compliance.

The training needs reported by the 3,372 respondents were diverse. For instance:

Some 69 percent of directors or food service management teams reported needing training or additional reimbursement for completing paperwork on the evaluations that assess compliance with the National School Lunch Program.

More than 60 percent reported needing guidance on developing, marketing and promoting new menus or modifying old ones.

Sixty-three percent said more training is needed to increase understanding of compliance with new meals and nutrient requirements.

Additionally, some programs reported needing more training regarding the purchase and operation of new equipment (28 percent), and how to employ basic cooking and nutrition skills safely (23 and 36 percent, respectively). 

To fix the problem, Pew and the Johnson Foundation recommended schools and all levels of government prioritize funding for training - a position backed by almost half the respondents in the Kellogg poll.

On Capitol Hill, the nutritional value of school lunches under the new standards is not in question as much as the operational costs they say comes with them. Opponents of the USDA-set standards say they lead to hikes in food waste and declines in cafeteria revenues, because students won't eat the healthier foods. 

Spokesperson Diane Pratt-Heavner for the School Nutrition Association, which represents school food directors, said the Pew “survey highlights the need for increased funding for schools working to meet new standards.”

“The overwhelming complexity of the nutrition standards… is cited as the top training need for frontline cafeteria staff” by SNA membership, Pratt-Heavner told Agri-Pulse. “As schools struggle to manage the higher cost of meeting new nutrition standards, they (will) need additional resources to cover training costs.”

Proponents of the standards say the healthier options will translate into lower rates of obesity and obesity-related diseases, particularly in low-income schools where the majority of students receive free and price-reduced meals. 

Thirty million students receive free lunch through the National School Lunch Program and 13 million get breakfast through the School Breakfast Program every day in the United States, according to USDA, which runs both initiatives. 

“For many children, these meals supply almost half of their daily calories,” said the authors of the Pew and Johnson Foundation report.

Katie Wilson, the deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, wrote on the USDA blog Monday that the department was “prioritizing thorough, ongoing trainings” for school kitchen staff through its Team Up for School Nutrition Success initiative launched last year. The program provides schools with financial management, youth engagement and menu planning training, in addition to guidance on food safety, professional standards and utilizing local produce.

“USDA understands that by training leaders locally, we can expand our reach tremendously and by empowering mentors at the state and local level, we provide communities with lasting, personalized support that is there to stay,” Wilson said. 

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