When it comes to obesity, my home state of Alabama is usually the bearer of bad news. Only 10 states have a higher childhood obesity rate than we do and only seven states have a higher rate among adults. Our rankings are even worse when we talk about causes of obesity and related health conditions — we have the highest rate of adult diabetes in the nation.
That’s why I’ve dedicated my career to our kids’ health. As director of child nutrition for Hoover City Schools — which serves about 14,000 students in the suburbs of Birmingham — I see firsthand the incredible potential schools have to set kids up for a good start in life and a healthy future; not just in the classroom but also in the cafeteria. Many kids consume up to half of their daily calories at school, and research shows that healthy school meals can help improve their diets and even reduce obesity.
In recent months, there’s been a movement among some in Congress to backtrack from updated nutrition standards for school meals that were enacted as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010. In particular, there’s talk that an upcoming omnibus bill to fund the government might include a waiver that would let schools off the hook from having to comply with the healthier standards.
Our experience in Hoover has convinced me that a waiver would do our kids no favors.
Long before school meals started making national headlines, we rolled up our sleeves in Hoover City Schools and got to work. In 2007, our district joined the Department of Agriculture’s HealthierUS School Challenge to transform our school environment. Whole grains and fresh fruits quickly became the rule for our lunch lines, not the exception. By the time the updated standards began taking effect in 2012, we were already close to meeting them. Today, we even offer our students unlimited vegetables within the regular meal price.
But we also realized early on that simply offering healthier options wasn’t enough; we needed to make sure our staff was trained and our students were intrigued. To that end, we’ve implemented regular training sessions for our food service personnel. We have taste-testing sessions and set up cooking classes for the kids. We market healthy meals aggressively with creative signs and displays. We developed a phone app that shows parents and kids the next day’s menu along with total calories for each meal. And we’ve amped up our school wellness committees to help involve our entire community in the effort.
As a leader in the Alabama School Nutrition Association, I am well aware that — even though the vast majority of schools nationwide are successfully meeting the current standards — some schools in our state and around the country face challenges with implementation. We’ve worked through our own challenges in Hoover. Changing recipes and using more herbs has reduced sodium levels. It took time for students to adjust to having fruits or vegetables with each meal, but we saw it as an opportunity to teach them about the importance of eating a variety of foods. Lunch participation has dipped slightly in recent years, but we’ve stayed the course and this year participation has stabilized. I’m confident we’ll see an increase by the end of the school year.
My message to Congress is simple: Don’t turn back the clock on school meals.
We have to stay the course and redouble our commitment to help every school succeed. If students struggle with homework, we don’t excuse them from completing assignments — we give them extra help. The same principle applies here. Some schools need more training, some need upgraded kitchen equipment. The Department of Agriculture is working to help those who need it most, as are countless school leaders across the country. Congress should be supporting this good work, not offering free passes that would deprive some kids from getting nutritious meals. It’s time for everyone to work together on solutions that do right by our kids and put them on the path to a healthier future.
Melinda Bonner is director of Child Nutrition for the Hoover City Schools in Hoover, Alabama. She also serves as the legislative co-chairwoman of the Alabama School Nutrition Association.