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School Nutrition Guidelines Are Changing: What Parents Need to Know

Meet the school districts that are ahead of the curve

Madison Miller

Published on: April 12, 2024

kids eating a healthy school lunch after new guidelines were implemented in washington

Not many of us have particularly fond memories of school lunches. We could choose from a pretty limited menu: grease-soaked pizza, cardboard-flavored milk, sloppy joes made with questionable meat and, as a treat, severely underripe apples. 

Those are fortunately faraway memories, but public school lunches are still … well … not great.

The federal government publishes the science-backed Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) every five years. The last one was released in 2020. School nutrition standards do not currently align with these guidelines, so the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has proposed revisions to the standards to help improve the meals served to students, with a final ruling set for April 2024.

This should be an easy adjustment, right? However, with tight school district budgets, minimal staff and resources, getting healthier food to students isn’t so easy. 

But it is important since school meals are a key source of nutrition for more than 30 million participating children, and nearly 1.1 million public school students in Washington state, across 2,556 schools in 295 districts.

While larger districts, such as Seattle Public Schools and Lake Washington School District, have been able to appropriately implement the changes, smaller, lesser-funded school districts are struggling.

However, a handful of Washington’s smaller school districts are making big changes to their menus, some even superseding other state and national school districts' offerings.

School nutrition guideline revisions

The new USDA revisions aim to increase whole grains and reduce sugar and sodium. The current DGA reports that the average school-age child ranks 52 on the Healthy Eating Index (out of 100), noting that fruit, vegetable and whole grain consumption is low, and sodium and sugar consumption remain high. 

As an example, the average male aged 5–8, consumes 80 percent more additional sugar, 84 percent more saturated fats and 97 percent more sodium than recommended. 

Mollie Greves Grow, MD, MPH, Seattle Children’s Hospital and Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Washington Chapter, supports these proposed revisions.

“To get all of the meals for all of the children aligned with those standards is a very ambitious task, but I think the revisions are getting us closer to that goal,” she says.

School districts leading the way

Better-funded and staffed school districts have been able to implement healthy changes in school menus, yet most of Washington’s students are served by smaller districts across the state. But, there is hope. A few of the state’s smaller school districts are seeing positive results thanks to the creativity, passion and innovation of their nutrition directors.

Prioritizing local ingredients and scratch-made cooking

Many school districts have historically served pre-packaged foods to their students. While a time and money saver, these kinds of foods are what’s harming students the most. So, in line with the DGA and the USDA’s proposed revisions, school districts are working toward a farm-to-school model, sourcing much of their ingredients and foods from local farms and businesses. 

Cassandra Hayes, food services director at Colville School District, says the district now sources its beef from local ranchers who graduated from the district, and bread from a local bakery. The transition has been a win-win. 

LJ Klinkenberg has spent about 33 years in the culinary world. Since taking the helm as the nutrition services director and chef at Cheney School District, he’s been focused on feeding his kids healthy food that actually tastes good.

“It’s real food for real kids,” he says. 

In his kitchens, he prioritizes sourcing local ingredients and seasonal fruits and vegetables and making meals from scratch. Scratch cooking allows the chef to control everything that goes in, and with good ingredients, the results are good food that’s lower in sodium and sugar and higher in proteins and vitamins. 

Klinkenberg prides himself in offering, as he puts it, K–12 dining and he does this through forming his own recipes and menus. He recently rolled out a pan-grilled Coho salmon served with pesto and whole grain flatbread.

“I’d be proud to serve this in any place I’ve ever cooked,” he says.

School chefs or food service directors don’t need to design their own elaborate menus as all districts are provided with standardized USDA recipes, but using connections and creativity can go a long way in feeding kids, Klinkenberg says.

Cost-saving benefits

One of the main reasons behind poor school nutrition has been a lack of funds and resources. But, there is help out there. According to Alexandra Epstein-Solfield, child nutrition director at Ellensburg School District, the USDA, Washington Department of Agriculture and other organizations give out sizeable grants to school districts to help with staffing, product sourcing, technology and equipment procurement, as well as grant writing and management.  

“It’s a lot of work, but we’ve received almost every grant we’ve applied for. It’s worth it,” she says.

In addition to grants, partnering with local farms and businesses has been transformative for some school districts’ budgets.

“We do try to build more relationships and we have sought out a lot of grants,” Hayes says. “In my first year here, my superintendent said, for the first time in history, our district went from a $250,000 negative budget to being in the black by about $30,000.”

How parents can help

If you think your local school district is missing the mark when it comes to its school nutrition, there are ways to help make a change.

School districts are required to have a wellness committee that monitors schools’ wellness policies, in addition to meeting with parents, students and districts stakeholders periodically throughout the year. Epstein-Solfield added that most school food service directors are willing to meet with parents to discuss school nutrition and take feedback.

Many school districts have local parents’ groups dedicated to bettering their schools’ nutrition and organize volunteer opportunities to help.

More healthy eating 

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