District of Columbia’s Healthy Schools Act

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Author: Danielle Lewis

Posted: February 5, 2014

Categories: Edible Education Network / Food in the News / Good Food Ideas for Kids / GoodFoodBites / Policy News / Schools

In 2010, the D.C. City Council unanimously passed the Healthy Schools Act, the most comprehensive and progressive school-based wellness legislation in existence. This landmark act can serve as a model for student health policies here in Ontario.

free breakfastWhat exactly does the Act mean for students?

  • Free universal breakfast
  • Schools with a high % of students from low income families must serve breakfast in the classroom
  • A healthy lunch with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables (Free for low income students)
  • Local and sustainably grown foods whenever possible (Extra funding if entire meal is local and unprocessed)
  • Served a different fruit and vegetable every day of the week and only low-fat white milk
  • Healthy snacks in vending machines (Strict standards regarding portion sizes, fat/sugar/sodium %, and beverages limited to low-fat milk, 100% juice, or water)
  • Participation in at least one Farm to School educational program each year (ex.Farm to School week)
  • More physical activity – mandatory 150 mins/week for grades k-5 and 225 mins/week for grades 6-8 (School year 2014-15 and beyond)
  • Increased amount of health education to 75 mins/week for grades k-8
  • Greener school environments: a school gardens program with required reporting, permission to sell and consume food grown, and a grant program to support development; an environmental literacy plan; comprehensive recycling; energy-reduction improvements; environmentally friendly cleaning supplies; sustainable products for food service; water and paint testing; and a tobacco-free campus!

For more quick facts refer to this brochure

History of the Act

In the previous decade, Washington, D.C. faced a paradoxical crisis: 43% of children ages 10-17 were overweight or obese and there was an unacceptable level of hunger (one in eight households). In 2007, in an effort to address this crisis D.C. Hunger Solutions, a not-for-profit organization founded in 2002, launched a multiyear campaign that culminated in working with the city (co-introduced by Council member Mary Cheh and Council Chairman Vincent Gray) to pass the Healthy Schools Act.  D.C. Hunger Solutions played a crucial role in every aspect of the bill, from conceptualization to implementation. The crafting of the Act engaged hundreds of stakeholders in an effort to reduce obesity among the District’s 75,000 students.

Even before passage of the landmark Healthy Schools Act, D.C. Hunger Solutions worked tirelessly to ensure that all students would have access to a healthy school breakfast, enabling them to start the day ready to learn. D.C. Hunger Solutions persuaded the D.C. Public Schools to adopt a policy making breakfast free for all children as a way of increasing participation and decreasing the stigma sometimes associated with the program. At their request, then-D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee also sent a letter to key principals stating that breakfast is critical to learning and that schools should consider implementing breakfast in the classroom.

Following passage of the law, D.C. Hunger Solutions visited more than 110 schools, developed videos for students and teachers, issued reports, and partnered with the Office of the State Superintendent of Education to conduct trainings and host a Healthy Schools event attended by 100 stakeholders. This catapulted the D.C. schools from 20th to 2nd place in the country for the percentage of low-income students starting their school day with a healthy school breakfast. Other U.S. states now are following D.C.’s lead.


The legislation came into effect in August 2010 and in that first school year the Act provided $6 million in local funding to enable D.C public and public charter schools to comply with the Act’s requirements.  The Act also enabled the District to penalize non-complying schools by withholding funds or levying fines. Outcomes from the new legislation have been extremly postive with all schools serving free breakfast, incorporating more fruits and veggies into school meals, and increasing amounts of physical education. For further details see reports from year one and year two efforts.

Year One Key Achievements

  • A 34% growth in school breakfast participation that yielded an additional 7,400 students on average eating breakfast each day
  • More than 90% of schools serve lunch components that meet the Act’s lunch menu criteria (different fruit and veg each day, beans once a week, dark green vegetable twice a week, whole grains at least once a day, etc.)
  • An increased use of locally grown and produced foods in school meals
  • Heightened focus on farm to school programs with hundreds of schools engaging students in the farm-to-table process by participating in city wide events such as D.C.Farm to School Week and Strawberries & Salad Greens
  • Four D.C. schools earning Healthier US Challenge recognition for excellence in nutrition and physical activity
  • The city’s hiring of a school garden specialist and commitment to fund school gardens

Year Two Key Achievements

  • Continued breakfast participation increases of 6.6%
  • Summer meals meeting higher nutrition standards
  • The creation of a Farm to School Specialist position to be housed at the Office of the State Superintendent of Education
  • The completion of the Environmental Literacy Plan
  • The awarding of the first round of the school garden grants to 22 schools totalling $197,386


Vendor shortages, ensuring menus match actual items served, and training food service workers all posed real and eye-opening obstacles in the first few months. Fortunately, the District hired Jeff Mills, an ex-resturaner, as their Food Services Director. Mills and his team came up with innovative solutions when participation dropped, aggressively pursuing and redesigning menu items that weren’t selling, launching education campaigns about the foods being served, and engaging cafeteria workers beforehand with ipad demonstrations on how to prepare food. They learned that education and training—for students, food service workers, and administrators—is just as important as the food itself.

There have also been struggles with regards to funding. On June 2, 2010, the D.C. City Council voted unanimously in favor of a 6% tax on all sugar sweetened beverages to fund the D.C. Healthy Schools Act (thanks to nearly 1,500 emails from Change.org petitioners). However, the Act was de-funded in Mayor Fenty’s FY 2011 Budget Gap-Closing Plan. The D.C. Council did eventually restore funding for implementation of the Act thanks to persistent advocacy by a diverse group of community members and stakeholders. Schools can now move forward with initiatives that fight hunger and improve children’s health and well-being.

This piece of legislation has become a model for school wellness improvements everywhere. For more information on the D.C. Healthy Schools Act see this list of resources and check out the super cute video below on how breakfast in the classroom operates.