Let’s not roll back on Hawaii schools’ healthy lunch strides

School lunch sometimes gets a bad rap, but as a nation, we’ve come a long way since the “ketchup as a vegetable” controversy of the 1980s. For many of Hawaii’s children, school is the only place where they have access to healthy, well-rounded, nutritious meals. In fact, research shows that, in most cases, school lunch is healthier than a home-packed lunch.

Two weeks ago, the Trump administration undermined this access by again proposing roll-backs to school nutrition standards. The current standards — put in place as part of Michelle Obama’s efforts to reform school food — require that children are served at least five different varieties of vegetables each week: dark leafy greens, red/orange vegetables, “starchy” (includes taro and poi) and “other” (‘ulu/breadfruit falls in this category).

The proposed rule would keep these categories — but lower the amount of red/orange and “other” vegetables required, paving the way for districts to opt for white potatoes in place of more nutrient-dense veggie options.

The rule also reduces the fruit requirement for breakfast served outside the cafeteria from one cup to a half cup. This would apply to any schools working to implement a grab-and-go or breakfast-in-the-classroom model, which is one of the key initiatives being championed by Hawaii’s first lady, Dawn Amano-Ige.

These changes aren’t the first assault on healthier school meals by this administration. In 2018, it removed the 50% whole grain requirement, allowed low-fat chocolate milk (only non-fat chocolate milk was allowed previously), and softened the sodium restrictions.

The good news here in Hawaii is that our Department of Education (HIDOE) is one of those “program operators” who aren’t backing down. HIDOE’s School Food Services Branch (which oversees meals for all 256 public schools in the state) is committed to maintaining the higher standards set forth in the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act for whole grain, red/orange and other vegetables, and flavored milk.

In fact, HIDOE’s food branch has been ahead of the curve with the whole grain requirement, switching from hapa rice (half white, half brown) to 100% brown rice in 2016. Early anecdotes of Hawaii students dumping their brown rice have been replaced with stories about kids learning to love brown rice and requesting it at home.

Still, under the federal administration’s proposed new rule, other schools outside of the HIDOE school food system (such as public charter schools) would be free to abandon the healthier standards.

The reason for the rollbacks, the administration says, is because kids don’t like the food now that it is healthy, and much of it is being thrown away.

The problem with this argument is this: What parent doesn’t understand the perpetual struggle of getting their children to eat their vegetables? Sure, kids might eat more if they are presented with more white bread, white rice and white potatoes. But with adolescent obesity rates in Hawaii remaining steady at around 14% for more than 15 years, there must be a better solution.

To combat food waste, rather than just give kids the junk food they want, we need to couple these healthier standards with hands-on food, agriculture and nutrition education. This includes garden-based learning, cooking demonstrations and understanding how to read ingredient labels.

Hawaii’s farm-to-school movement has been proactively training a workforce of nutrition and garden educators from preschool through higher education (P-20), bringing joy and real life learning to Hawaii’s keiki.

We need to support these efforts in any way we can. One such opportunity is through House Bill 2215, a measure that would continue and expand the work of the P-20 Agriculture Education Working Group toward regenerating Hawaii’s community food systems.

Healthy school meals, school gardens and hands-on education are a trio of interventions that together form a critical component of our children’s health and safety net programs. They reduce food insecurity and have been associated with improved health and academic outcomes.

We need to stand up to the Trump administration’s misguided attempts to weaken nutrition standards. The proposed rule is currently open for comment until March 23, and the administration must read every comment that it gets. Please add your comment to protect children’s health today!