We sat down with Nancy Rice, president of the School Nutrition Association, to chat about kids' school lunches and what can be done to make them healthier.
Girl in Lunch Line
Credit: Courtesy of School Nutrition Association

Editor's note: The following questions were asked by the MyRecipes staff and answered by School Nutrition Association President Nancy Rice, M.Ed., RD, LD, SNS.

What is the function of the School Nutrition Association?
School Nutrition Association (SNA) is a non-profit, professional organization representing school nutrition professionals from all 50 states. Our mission is to advance good nutrition for all children, so SNA was a strong voice in support of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, enacted in December 2010.

Can you explain the highlights of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act? What changes will come from this bill?
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act will update federal nutrition standards for school meals, requiring more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains (and less sodium and calories) in every meal. Schools will receive 6 cents more per school lunch to meet these standards. The new law will also ban junk food from school vending machines and snack bars, and ensure more children from food-insecure homes can benefit from healthy school meals.

Parents want to know: Why is so much processed and breaded food served in school lunches? Why aren’t there more fresh fruits and vegetables on the menu?
Research shows schools nationwide are serving more fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy items. While some schools are scratch-preparing foods, others struggle to cover the high labor, equipment, and staff training costs associated with scratch-prep. However, thanks to federal nutrition standards which limit fat, saturated fat, and portion size in school meals, most pre-prepared school foods are healthier than many of the processed foods you’ll find in the grocery store.

What improvements are being made to school lunches to make them healthier?
Schools have worked hard to make kid favorites healthy options by switching preparation methods (baking vs. frying) and using healthier ingredients (leaner meats, whole grains). These days, school pizza is often served on whole-grain crust with low-fat cheese and low-sodium sauce. You’ll also find baked sweet potato “fries” or wedges, brown rice, vegetarian choices, and salads. Schools are also launching nutrition education programs to encourage kids to try these healthier foods.[pagebreak]

How can parents help their children make better decisions in the lunch line?
Every school lunch offers two fruits or vegetables, but many children won’t try them! When parents serve a wide variety of healthy foods at home, kids are more likely to select them at school. Going over the cafeteria menu with your children before school can also help them make healthier choices in the lunch line. Even better; join your children for school lunch one day so they can see you make the right choices!

Do you have any advice for parents who want to serve healthier meals at home?
As a Registered Dietitian, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of fruits and vegetables – kids just aren’t getting enough of these nutritional powerhouses! Experiment with new foods and serving methods. Sometimes cutting your produce with fun-shaped cookie cutters, serving them on toothpicks, or offering a side of low-fat yogurt dip is all it takes to get your child to try something healthy.

With so many regulations, how can government agencies encourage schools to use locally grown fresh foods?
Many schools are serving locally grown foods, thanks to Farm to School programs, relationships with farmers or school gardens. Challenges remain - from short growing seasons to farmers who can’t provide evidence of meeting strict school food safety regulations and local farms that can’t supply the volume or consistency required to serve large districts abiding by monthly menus. But schools will continue to work with regulators and growers to get more local foods in the cafeteria.

Are there ways for parents to help schools get more funding for healthier school lunches?
As Congress searches for new ways to trim federal deficits, contact your representatives and ask them to protect child nutrition programs. Schools are stretching tight foodservice budgets to meet costly new nutrition standards, and with many families struggling to put food on the table, now is not the time to be cutting our school meal programs! Some state and local governments support school nutrition programs, so contact your local legislators, too.

If parents are not satisfied with the lunches their children are being served at school, what can they do to advocate better menus?
Visit your school cafeteria for a meal and chat with the cafeteria manager about what’s being served. Next, meet with your school nutrition director about efforts to improve the meals and how you can help. Maybe you can get involved in your district’s local school wellness committee or lobby for local funding. School food advocate Dana Woldow shares some great suggestions on how to get started in her post on The Lunch Tray blog.