USDA School Feeding Programs Help Enhance Child Nutrition

June 09, 2015

This year National Dairy Council (NDC) is celebrating its 100th anniversary – an important milestone for nutrition. Since its founding by America’s dairy farmers in 1915, NDC has been committed to nutrition research and education. Throughout its history, NDC has had a special focus on child nutrition and health – largely through schools. A new report, Fluid Milk in School Meal Programs, outlines why milk is part of school meals and how child health may be impacted when milk consumption falls. With the discussion on Child Nutrition Reauthorization beginning, I was invited to share the science-based information in the report with congressional staff to help educate them on milk’s role in children’s health and the school meal programs.

Milk is an integral part of the federal school meal programs because of its nutrient package – providing the number one food source of nine essential nutrients in the diets of America’s children and adolescents. Milk is also the number one food source of three out of the four nutrients of concern identified in the Dietary Guidelines: calcium, potassium and vitamin D. As a mom and a dietitian, I know how critically important it is for children to have the opportunity to drink low-fat and fat-free milk at school, especially since their overall consumption of milk, yogurt, and cheese is less than recommended.

As participation in the school meal programs goes up, kids not only get more low-fat and fat-free milk, but they also get more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Several of the school meal programs have potential to expand participation and therefore increase student nutrient intake.

Now that school is out for the summer, our focus shifts to summer meals and the hungry students who still need to be fed. The Summer Food Service Program served 134 million meals in 2010 and has grown to 162 million meals served in 2014. Fuel Up to Play 60 worked with USDA under an existing memorandum of understanding, to promote awareness and participation in summer feeding programs.

When children head back to school in the fall, the School Breakfast and After-School Supper programs offer great opportunities for program growth.

The School Breakfast Program created in 1966 and expanded nationwide in 1975 is now serving over 13 million children – about half the number who eat school lunch. Eating breakfast may have both nutritional and academic benefits. The Wellness Impact report discusses evidence that students who eat school breakfast – especially children at nutritional risk — have better nutrient intakes and may perform better academically than children who don’t eat breakfast.

Moving breakfast out of the school cafeteria by serving breakfast in the classroom or from “grab-and-go” carts have been successful strategies in getting more kids to eat breakfast, and start the day with the fuel they need to learn. Last year National Dairy Council worked with experts like chefs, school nutrition directors, recipe developers and others to come up with innovative breakfast ideas kids would love and that can be served at home or at school.

In 2012 the After-School Snack Program was expanded to allow supper meals to be served to the children. Milk is required to be offered with the meal just as it is with lunch. Many schools are seeing this as a way to provide another healthy meal to food insecure children.

As the School Milk report shows, there are challenges but also many opportunities to maintain and expand consumption of milk and other dairy foods in schools. Working together, we can overcome challenges and seize the opportunities that will allow us to meet America’s public health and nutrition goals for the 21st century.

Follow me @JeanRagalieRD to continue the conversation.