By: Claire McCarthy, MD, FAAP
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) believes that what kids eat at school matters.
More than 55 million children and teens attend the nation's public schools—and eat about 35% to 40% of their daily calories there. It's really important that those calories be healthy ones—especially since a third of the calories kids eat these days aren't healthy ones.
If we can make the food they eat at school healthier, it could make all the difference. That's why the AAP has published the policy statement "Snacks, Sweetened Beverages, Added Sugars, and Schools."
Types of Foods Found in Schools
There are three categories of food kids eat at school:
School meals (breakfast, lunch, and afterschool snacks) sponsored by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Food and drinks sold at school that aren't part of the USDA program, such as those sold in vending machines.
"Other" foods (everything else that doesn't fall into the other two categories), including snacks and lunches brought in by students, foods served for birthdays or as rewards and foods sold at sporting events or as fundraisers.
Changes to School Meals & Food/Drinks Sold
The first two categories are regulated, and as a result of the
Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed by congress in 2010, we have made progress in making the first two healthier. The USDA has made many changes in what it requires of school meals over the past decade, with the latest recommendations in 2012 encouraging less sugar, lean meats, low fat dairy, more fruits, vegetables and whole grains as well as kid-sized servings. There have also been new rules about what can be sold in the lunch room that have made that food healthier, too.
Today, according to USDA, 93% of schools are serving meals that meet that higher nutritional quality which is great. There are definitely challenges for some schools, especially financial ones (healthy foods can be more expensive), and we still have a ways to go when it comes to making all school meals and all the food sold at school healthy; there are some initiatives in place (like the
Team up for School Nutrition Success) to help schools do this, but communities need to help, too.
Other Foods Eaten at School
The last category, all that other food that ends up being eaten at school, isn't regulated. There have been some attempts by some schools to encourage healthier foods by prohibiting sweets for class parties or selling candy for school fundraisers, and this has caused an uproar in some communities. Many parents have wondered:
"What's the harm in an occasional cupcake?"
There is no harm in the occasional cupcake—if it's part of an overall healthy diet.
The AAP isn't worried about cupcakes—but they are worried about that overall diet, which for many children isn't healthy.
Banning sweets at parties or for rewards forces people to think of healthy ways to celebrate, either with healthy foods or without foods at all (like by sending in pencils or other small gifts for classmates instead of sweets). Banning selling candy for fundraisers or at school events also forces people to stop and think about what they are doing—and how it might impact students. It makes a statement about how the school values student health—and helps create a school culture of
That culture is important, because parents can pack and send in whatever they or their children want for lunch or snack (some classrooms with
children with nut allergies do ask that parents not send in food with nuts, for safety reasons). Far too many children are eating junk food and processed foods and washing it down with sugar-sweetened beverages. It's understandable—not only are kids generally happy with these foods, they are generally less expensive than healthier alternatives. But eating them regularly can lead to
obesity, high cholesterol,
high blood pressure and other health problems.
The AAP doesn't want any of that to happen to children. None of us does. That's why we all need to work together to help make the food kids buy and eat at school healthier. Together, we can make school a place where both minds and bodies are nourished and made stronger—and give our children a better future.
About Dr. McCarthy:
Claire McCarthy, MD, FAAP is a primary care pediatrician at Boston Children's Hospital, an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, a senior editor for Harvard Health Publications, and an official spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. She writes about health and parenting for the Harvard Health Blog and Huffington Post.