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January 31, 2020
Kids Need Choices to Build Healthy Eating Habits

Chef Sam Icklan helps us understand the real world impact that could come from the Trump Administration’s proposed rollback of nutrition guidelines.

Last week, the Trump Administration proposed yet another rule change that will negatively impact children from low-income households. The rule would rollback important pieces of the current school meal nutrition standards that were set under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. 

Nearly 30 million children eat school lunch and 14.4 million eat school breakfast. More than 60% of the children who eat school lunch come from low-income households and rely on free or reduced-price school meals for more than half of their daily calories.

The proposed change would weaken nutrition standards and reverse  the progress around school nutrition that has been made since the implementation of the Act in 2010. It has the potential to reduce the amount of fruit served to kids, as well as the variety of vegetables served at lunch. It would also create loopholes in the current nutrition standards so that more pizza, hamburgers, and other foods high in calories, saturated fat, and sodium could be sold separately from the foods now included in the federal school meals program.

We sat down with the Director of Project Bread’s Chefs in Schools Program, Chef Sam Icklan, to try to understand what all of this means in real world terms. 

Project Bread (PB): First, just for those not familiar, what is the Chefs in Schools Program?

Chef Sam (CS): Good question! Chefs in Schools makes healthy school food more accessible by partnering with public school districts and training school cafeteria staff and engaging students to develop quality meals that are healthy, tasty and visually appealing to kids — and all on a public school budget.

PB: How long have you been Director Chefs in Schools?

CS: :I started with Project Bread as a Chef Educator in 2015 and have been director since 2018. I’ve worked in school food service since 2010.

PB: How many schools have you worked in across Massachusetts?

CS: Personally, I’ve worked in close to 50 all together! The Chefs in Schools Program is currently working with 6 school districts in Massachusetts.

PB: What’s school the furthest from Boston have you’ve worked in?

CS: Pittsfield!

PB: So, you have lots of real world experience in a variety of schools across the state. Do you recall the nutrition guidelines being instituted in 2010?

CS: Well, there hadn’t been any significant changes in the federal nutrition guidelines for a number of years, so the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is the most progressive piece of nutrition legislation we’ve seen.

It presented new, updated guidelines that were more specific than before, and mandated that students had to be offered a variety of foods like different kinds of vegetables, more fruits, and an increase in whole grains and lean proteins.

PB: Why is this kind of specificity with regard to nutrition so important?

CS: First of all, we know that a healthy diet consists of a diversity of healthy foods. Kids establish eating patterns early on in life, so offering them a variety of choices and a diversity of foods allows them to establish connections to healthy eating that will last a lifetime. 

Also important here is that low income students can rely on school meals more than half their daily calories, so we want to ensure they’re getting the best nutrition possible.

Proper nutrition is linked with outcomes related to academic success, things like school attendance, visits to the nurse, and learning in general. I mean, students who are hungry can’t concentrate! They suffer from headaches and tiredness and all the same things we adults experience when we’re hungry. Ensuring that kids get proper nutrition in a way that is accessible and without stigma for low income students is one of the best things we can do to help them succeed.

PB: What effects do you foresee if the current nutrition guidelines are rolled back?

 CS: There was already a new rule that was finalized in December 2018 that weakened whole grain, milk, and sodium standards. Any individual one of these changes wasn’t necessarily devastating, but taken together, they’re whittling away at the core of a successful nutrition policy. And now, months later, they’re targeting the amounts of fruit served and the requirements for vegetable subgroups like red and orange vegetables. These subgroups are what ensure a variety of vegetables are offered. This ultimately means limiting what kids are exposed to and what they think of as possible choices for food.

Some kids don’t know a cucumber from broccoli — I mean, they’re kids! We need to be teaching them about different foods and the 2010 guidelines helped to do that

PB: Do kids actually eat the healthy variety of foods they’re offered? The Trump Administration is arguing that they just throw it away?

CS: There’s a lot of reasons why kids throw out their food. For instance, kids sometimes have only fifteen minutes to get through the cafeteria line and eat before they have to clean up. 

We also know that kids need to be offered new foods and to try them a number of times before they’re willing to accept them. In the short term you might find it takes a bit for kids to acclimate, but over a period of engaging they get on board. It’s important that students have agency in all of this too. We give them samples so they can vote and have input. We also conduct surveys and really try to allow them to have their voices heard. If they really, truly don’t like something, they don’t have to eat it! We don’t end it there though, we then try to come up with something else that’s tasty.

PB: Any final thoughts?

CS: The kids who are in school now are used to the 2010 guidelines. Some have had them their entire school career. It’s not outside of their experience anymore because districts have remained committed to these guidelines and have been creating tasty meals for kids within those guidelines. It would be a shame to undo all of this progress.

I’ve been in some of the same districts for a few years, and can really see the impact this type of programming has on the students. Even after several years they are super excited to see the Chefs in Schools program in their new school because it’s become part of their routine, and they know when they see the program in their cafeteria they’re going to be able to try some new things. Getting kids to love a variety of healthy foods is what it’s all about.

    Filed under: Informing Public Policy, Healthy Food, News and Events, Children and Schools, General