Health and education are deeply interconnected. Put simply, healthy children learn better. The Rudd Center studies how to optimize the school environment to promote health.
Over the past few decades, the availability of unhealthy foods in school environments has increased dramatically. Cafeteria food, vending machines, a la carte cafeteria lines, and school stores have become sources of unhealthy food. When unhealthy foods are present, they compete with the school meal program, and in turn, affect student participation and compromise student health.
Most school children spend a majority of their time at school, and for many children, school provides the only nutritious meal of the day. Schools are in a unique position of influencing large numbers of children, and improving this food environment may be one of the most efficient ways of changing how children eat.
Each local educational agency that participates in the National School Lunch Program or other federal child nutrition programs is required by federal law to establish a local school wellness policy for all schools under its jurisdiction.
Local wellness policies are an important tool for parents, local educational agencies (LEAs) and school districts in promoting student wellness, preventing and reducing childhood obesity, and providing assurance that school meal nutrition guidelines meet the minimum federal school meal standards. On the USDA's website, helpful links and requirements for schools can be found.
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The problem of food waste in the National School Lunch Program has been documented for decades, and the consistently low levels of consumption for various food types, especially vegetables and fruits, remains a problem. A better understanding of initiatives, interventions, and policies that can improve school meal consumption more broadly is needed to help inform school food service programs and policies at the district, state, and federal levels.
Research evidence supports the following strategies to increase school meal consumption: (1) offering students more menu choices; (2) adapting recipes to improve the palatability and/or cultural appropriateness of foods; (3) providing pre-sliced fruits; (4) rewarding students who try fruits and vegetables; (5) enabling students to have sufficient time to eat with longer (~30 min) lunch periods; (6) having recess before lunch; and (7) limiting students’ access to competitive foods during the school day.