Hunger and obesity are serious challenges that face far too many children in our state and across the country. At a quick glance, it may seem that attempts to reduce hunger and promote healthy eating are competing goals. Yet, evidence shows us that expanding participation in federal nutrition programs (like school meals) reduces childhood hunger and improves children's diets. At the same time, improving the quality of these federal programs, with a primary goal of preventing obesity, may well increase participation.
That's why the recent update to the school nutrition standards is so important for children in Maryland. The 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act requires all school districts are to implement the new school lunch standards for the 2012-2013 school year. The implementation of school breakfast standards will be phased in over a three-year period. These new standards are consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and mark the most comprehensive changes to the school nutrition environment in 15 years.
What does that mean for children in our schools? They will see more fruits and vegetables and more whole grains and low-fat milk options. Meals will be consistent with the recommended calorie levels for children. Nutritious meals at school allow students to enter the classroom ready to learn, and they help students form healthier eating habits for life.
School meals are important for all children, but they are especially important for low-income children whose families struggle to put food on the table. Just last week, we learned that one in seven Marylanders told the Gallup organization that there were times over the past 12 months that they were unable to afford enough food for their households. For these families, school meals can help them stretch limited food dollars by ensuring their children get the healthy food they need to stay alert and focused in class.
It is critical, then, for Maryland to continue its efforts to improve the nutrition of school meals and prioritize its work to expand participation in school meals. There is progress being made on both fronts. Many schools districts are moving ahead with implementation of the new standards. Some are even ahead of the game, such as Anne Arundel County Public Schools, which had adapted their menu offerings over the past few years to increase the nutritional value of meals served. Anne Arundel is offering unlimited fruits and vegetables every day for their students, and as a result of taste-testing with students last year, have added new vegetables — including Brussels sprouts, butternut squash, and acorn squash. Baltimore City Public Schools is adding salad bars to more schools, and this past April it saw the first delivery of produce from its Great Kids Farm to seven city schools.
There also is a renewed emphasis across the state on reaching more children with the school meal programs. Participation in both school breakfast and in school lunch has been steadily increasing, both because of more families becoming eligible for the program and because schools and communities are doing a better job with outreach.
Still, our research shows that less than half of low-income children receiving school lunch also received breakfast, a shortfall that means too many children start the day hungry. But we also know that participation soars when schools move breakfast out of the cafeteria and serve the meal in the classroom, from grab and go carts, or other options. Baltimore City Public Schools and many other jurisdictions are seeing these benefits first-hand by increasing the flexibility of schools to employ these creative ways to serve breakfast and reach more children. And the state is supporting such efforts by increasing funding for this school year to expand the Maryland Meals for Achievement, a state-funded program that supports breakfast in the classroom programs.
Encouraging parents and families to take advantage of healthier school meals is an essential step to ending childhood hunger and improving health. There's a role for everyone. The Maryland State Department of Education has been leading the charge on these efforts across the state by providing regional training and technical assistance to the nutrition directors in the local districts. Gov. Martin O'Malley has made ending childhood hunger a goal, and efforts to improve participation should continue to be a priority in achieving it. Groups like the Partnership to End Childhood Hunger and Maryland Hunger Solutions have been ratcheting up attention to these programs. And parents have an incredibly important role to play as well. By reviewing the menu with their children and encouraging them to try something new, joining their children at school during lunch, and engaging their children in grocery shopping and meal preparation at home, there are numerous ways for parents to play an active role in helping their children adapt to the new school meals.
With everyone making school meals a priority, Maryland will continue to make great progress in its work to improve nutrition and end hunger.
Cathy Demeroto is director of Maryland Hunger Solutions. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.