Photo by Harshal S. Hirve on Unsplash

By Karen Spangler, NFSN Policy Director

In August, National Farm to School Network submitted comments on the Scientific Report of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans Advisory Committee, which reviews new scientific evidence about diet's impact on health. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), reviewed by an advisory committee every five years, provide the foundation for the federal government’s recommendations to the public about eating patterns that lead to better health outcomes.

The DGA are crucially important because their recommendations to promote or limit certain types of foods inform the nutrition standards for federal programs, including child nutrition programs.The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 ensured that school meal program standards are aligned with the DGA. Over the last ten years, as school menus have changed to meet the DGA standards, school meals have included more fruit, more servings and varieties of vegetables, more whole grains, and less saturated fat and sodium. A recent summary of research from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation highlights the impact of these changes on short-term and long-term health and educational performance, particularly for low-income students.

This review of the scientific evidence from the Advisory Committee offers recommendations to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) for updating the existing dietary guidelines. We’re excited by these new areas of focus, and in our comments have highlighted for the Secretaries that farm to school and farm to early care and education (ECE) activities can help achieve these recommendations.

Focus on Overall Dietary Pattern
The report notes a dietary approach that promotes holistic, lifelong positive overall dietary quality leads to better long-term health. The Committee comments that, in general, healthy dietary patterns emphasize vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, and seafood, all of which are currently under-consumed by Americans. Farm to school and farm to ECE activities offer proven strategies to increase immediate fruit and vegetable consumption. Research shows participation in farm to school and ECE activities increases children’s fruit and vegetable consumption by up to 1.3 servings per day. As the Committee notes, the flexibility within these patterns offers opportunities to incorporate traditional and culturally relevant foods, which connect children with their local food system and strengthen cultural and social connections in the community. Similarly, exploring local and seasonal foods through nutrition education and food service encourages kids to meet the dietary objectives recommended by the Committee within an accessible, culturally relevant frame.

Recognition of Early Childhood as a Key Developmental Period
For the first time, the Committee focused its review on nutrition in the earliest stages of life, concluding that this period of development is crucial to health later in life. The food environment in early childhood impacts long-term health directly, through key nutrients, and indirectly through shaping taste preferences and food choices. We know that farm to ECE activities can help with both of these aspects. In addition to local food procurement, educational and hands-on activities also  increase students’ willingness to choose healthier options at school meals and influence healthier food behaviors throughout their lifespan and in home environments.

Health Implications of Racial Injustice in the Food System
Commendably, the Committee notes the persistent health problems that food insecurity presents for our country. In addition to calling on USDA and HHS to support programs that provide low-income people with the resources to meet DGA, in our comments, we highlighted the historic and ongoing racial injustice in our food system that leads to these health inequities. We knew before the Covid-19 pandemic and recent Black Lives Matter protests that our food system is rife with racial inequities and that the current public health crisis has only exacerbated them. Our nation’s economy and our agricultural system are built on a foundation of racism and exploitation. These inequities in our food system contribute to economic and health inequalities: the same people that provide labor in our food system often can’t afford nourishing food for themselves and their families. As a result, Black, Latinx, and Native American communities are significantly more likely to face hunger and food insecurity than White individuals, and to suffer from diet-related diseases like diabetes. The Committee chose not to review scientific evidence on how the food environment and the overall food system impact health, which present a major shortcoming of their final report. Food system factors, including systemic racism and environmental justice, are key to dietary health.

The next step is for USDA and HHS to consider the evidence reviewed by the Committee and turn this scientific review into actionable recommendations for federal programs and for the general public. We have encouraged USDA and HHS to consider farm to school activities as a proven strategy for helping child nutrition programs meet these goals, and to foster healthier lives for our kids and communities.

Read our full comments here.