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Opinion | Ellen Parker and Ronald E. Kleinman

Children have a right to healthy food at school

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue eats lunch with students at the Catoctin Elementary School in Leesburg, Va., May 1. Perdue unveiled a new rule on school lunches as the Trump administration and other Republicans press for flexibility after eight years of emphasis on healthy eating.
Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue eats lunch with students at the Catoctin Elementary School in Leesburg, Va., May 1. Perdue unveiled a new rule on school lunches as the Trump administration and other Republicans press for flexibility after eight years of emphasis on healthy eating.(Carolyn Kaster/AP)

On May 1, 2017, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue proclaimed his intention to roll back the recently updated and reformed federal nutrition standards for school lunches. Opining that children won’t eat whole grain grits and won’t drink 1 percent milk, the secretary took this step in order to “make school food great again.”

As longtime advocates for healthy school meals for schoolchildren, we agree that school meals should be great — our children deserve nothing less. We respectfully differ with the secretary on one point. Children will eat meals that meet the higher nutrition standards — and there is ample evidence to support our claim. Here’s the context.

Jan. 26, 2012, was a red-letter day for 32 million American schoolchildren. In a policy move centered on child health, the US Department of Agriculture announced a broad and sweeping reform of the nutrition standards for school meals. It was a clear and unmistakable message that students had a right to be served healthy food at school.

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It was a bold step, and a critical one for vulnerable children. In Massachusetts, and across the country, low-income students rely on school meals for over half of their daily calories and important nutrients. Every calorie should contribute to health.

The 2012 standards redefined the requirements for a federally reimbursable school meal. The USDA followed the evidence-based recommendations of an expert panel convened by the prestigious National Academy of Medicine. Schools were directed to serve a variety of vegetables and legumes and to gradually increase whole grain products and decrease sodium levels.

As every parent knows, it takes effort and ingenuity to change children’s eating habits. It’s equally challenging in the school cafeteria. Yet if every student in Massachusetts ate school meals that met these standards, the positive impacts on public health would be deep and lasting.

We judged this to be so important that Project Bread and its partners made a major investment learning to cook healthy meals (as defined by the 2012 standards) that students liked to eat.

The goal was straightforward but not easy. It had two parts. First, create meals with student appeal. Second, prepare each meal within the cost guidelines set by the federal government. In other words, do it right and don’t break the bank.

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The project is titled Chefs in Schools. A group of professionally trained chefs employed by Project Bread worked side by side with the staff of local school food services. Their lab was the cafeteria kitchen, and that is where they began to put the vision into action.

A key element of program success was student engagement. Chefs and kitchen staff prepared samples of the new menu items and asked students to rate the taste. Guided by these student consumers, the team came up with winning meals that students would eat.

The real proof is not in the pudding, but in the evaluation. In partnership with researchers at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health we measured the project success.

How did we do? In a word, great! The 2012 nutrition standards, put into practice through the Chefs in Schools partnership, measurably improved the nutritional intake from school meals.

In the schools where Project Bread chefs partnered with cafeteria staff, students ate more food and threw away less. They were 20 percent more likely to choose a fruit and 30 percent more likely to choose a vegetable, and their consumption of these foods increased by similar percentages.

Over the past 11 years, Project Bread’s Chefs in Schools program has operated in 15 districts and touched more than 95,000 students.

Currently, in partnership with the Boston Public Schools, we operate a culinary innovation lab at the Fenway High School. We prepare samples of new healthy meals and ask the students their opinion. In concert with Boston Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services, the best new meals are rolled out into the district.

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The investment in achieving our goal is a modest level of funding and a moderate degree of care and attention. We’re certain that we have the way, and Massachusetts has the will, to guarantee healthy school meals to every child in the state.

We’ve demonstrated that the evidence-based standards for school nutrition recommended by the National Academy of Medicine and accepted by the USDA in 2012 can successfully be put into practice in Massachusetts. It’s not time to roll back the regulations in the state. It’s time to stay on track and to scale up.

Let’s promise our students that every school district in Massachusetts will continue on the path recommended by the Academy of Medicine. Let’s demonstrate that our leadership to promote good health is inseparable from our commitment to universal access to health care.

Let’s extend a warm and respectful invitation to Secretary Perdue to come to Massachusetts, see what we’ve done, and reconsider his opinion on rolling back regulations.

Let’s identify the important outcomes: healthy food in the stomach, and a boost to student health and well-being. It’s worth working for.


Ellen Parker is the executive director of Project Bread. Dr. Ronald E. Kleinman, physician in chief of Massachusetts General Hospital for Children and chief of Partners Pediatrics, is the chairman of Project Bread’s board of directors. He also served on the National Academy of Medicine’s committee on nutrition standards for national school lunch and breakfast programs.

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