I. Schools Are Cooking Up Healthier Lunches

Healthy school lunches

Students at Keeth Elementary School in Seminole, Florida, check out what's on the menu in their cafeteria. Studies show that school kids of all ages are eating more fruit. (© Tyrone Turner for The Pew Charitable Trusts)

It can be difficult for school cafeterias to prepare healthy meals without the right equipment. But a recent influx of funding from Congress has been helping many schools get their cooking tools up to speed. Last year, case studies on nearly two dozen schools that received U.S. Department of Agriculture equipment grants showed the difference updated kitchens are making for students and school nutrition programs across the country.

Kentucky’s Cawood Elementary, for example, had been preparing meals on appliances that were more than 30 years old, which left vegetables mushy and devoid of nutrients and took hours to properly cook meats. The school’s new combination oven now allows cafeteria workers to steam, roast, or dehydrate separate food items, producing more nutritious meals in less time and with decreased staff effort. 

When California’s Murrieta Mesa High was built in 2009, its huge kitchen afforded plenty of storage space for processed foods—but precious little of the equipment necessary for cooking with fresh ingredients. So the school used its USDA kitchen grant to purchase a tilting skillet. Today students can choose nutritious meals like chili, chicken fajitas, and beef and broccoli—which features the perfectly cooked and crunchy bright green vegetable.

The federal funding is part of seven years of work dedicated to making school meals and snacks more nutritious through the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project, a collaborative effort between Pew and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. 

The project began after Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which reauthorized school meal programs, with a twist: They would have to meet updated nutrition standards reflecting the latest scientific evidence on children’s dietary needs and health. At the time, a typical school lunch was high in sodium, saturated fat, and added sugar, and low in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. With 31 million children getting school lunches on an average day and childhood obesity and diabetes on the rise, making meals healthier was seen as critical to helping improve children’s overall well-being.

USDA finalized improved breakfast and lunch nutrition standards in January 2012 that require schools to offer more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; serve low-fat or fat-free milk; and limit the total amount of saturated fat and sodium in a week’s worth of meals. By September 2016, nearly all school districts had complied with the updated standards. 

The department also revamped rules for foods and drinks sold in cafeteria a la carte lines and in vending machines and school stores. Beginning in July 2014, these snack items needed to meet healthier parameters, namely being a fruit, vegetable, protein, or whole grain; less than 200 calories per serving; and low in fat, sodium, and sugar. 

Big benefits have resulted from these changes. Several studies show that plate waste—the food kids take but later discard—either decreased or stayed the same as entrees become healthier, and students of all ages are consuming more fruits and larger portions of their vegetables and entrees. In addition, the project’s nationally representative survey of school districts found that almost two-thirds of districts that increased the use of salad bars reported that kids ate more produce as a result. And studies in Connecticut, Texas, and Washington show that children’s eating habits are improving. In Texas, for example, less than year after the healthier standards took effect, students were selecting a wider variety of vegetables with their lunches, and kids who chose red or orange vegetables were eating about a quarter cup of each serving, almost twice as much as they did in 2011. 

“The Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project was a driving force behind the incredibly successful implementation of the updated school nutrition standards,“ says Jasmine Hall Ratliff, a program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “We are proud of its contributions to building a culture of health in the United States.”

Polling conducted by the project revealed that voters with school-age children overwhelmingly support these changes, with 9 in 10 approving of requirements that schools serve fruits or vegetables with every meal, and 7 in 10 favoring nutrition standards for school meals and snacks.

“Schools have recognized the important role health and wellness programs—especially nutritious food and drinks—have to their students’ overall success and well-being,” says Stephanie Scarmo, a project researcher. “And as an added bonus, kids who start eating healthy foods in school end up eating better as adults, too.”

—Demetra Aposporos

II. U.S. Incarceration, Crime Rates Drop—What's Changed?

A Pew analysis in January examined changes to the U.S. incarceration rate over time. Starting in the 1970s, the U.S. prison population has skyrocketed, rising more than 700 percent above historic levels due to a get-tough-on-crime ethos that lengthened sentences and took more offenders off the street. The growth peaked at 1 in 100 Americans behind bars in 2008—but that same year the trend began to reverse. Pew’s report found that the incarceration rate has fallen 13 percent, to 1 in 115. 

This drop coincided with a wave of state reforms, beginning with Texas and spreading to 32 other states. Pew has worked with policymakers in many of those states to improve sentencing and corrections policies, prioritizing prison space for serious offenders, and investing some of the money saved in effective alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders. 

The initiative has gained credibility among policymakers in part because as these new laws were put in place, the crime rate continued to drop. Despite a recent uptick in violence in some cities, national rates of reported violent and property crime fell by 14.6 percent from 2010 to 2015. Crime actually dropped faster in states whose prison populations declined by bigger margins, the Pew analysis found.

Cost has been another factor driving reform. States have collectively been spending over $50 billion a year on corrections. South Carolina’s prison population, for example, had nearly tripled over 25 years to some 25,000 inmates in 2009, costing taxpayers about $400 million a year. It was on track to grow another 13 percent by 2014, which would have required building more prisons.

Rather than pay such a hefty cost, state lawmakers instead turned to research findings, and in 2010 passed a series of reforms that shifted lower-level drug and property offenders from prison to probation. By 2016, the prison population had shrunk enough to allow the state to close six prisons, avoiding nearly $500 million in new costs. And as the number of inmates dropped, so did the crime rate: from about 4,500 crimes per 100,000 residents to 3,798. 

“We had a history of establishing new criminal offenses and stiff penalties based on reactions to headlines, instead of using what we knew that we should be using now … evidence-based practices,” says state Senator Gerald Malloy (D), who led reform efforts in the South Carolina Legislature. 

Adam Gelb, who directs Pew’s public safety performance project, stressed that rising costs are not the only factor that’s brought South Carolina lawmakers—and those in other states—to the table. Other critical motivators are strong research showing that well-run probation, parole, and other programs can cut rates of reoffending.

“There’s been a real change in attitude about crime and punishment,” says Gelb. “Policymakers are realizing that building more prisons to incarcerate more people for longer amounts of time is not the best path to public safety. There are alternatives that work better and cost much less.”

—Anne Usher

III. Feral Camels Threaten Australia's Outback

Feral camels in the Australian Outback

Feral camels are wreaking havoc on the Australian Outback, damaging infrastructure, degrading water sources, and eating up to 80 percent of the available plants. (© Robert Sleep)

The Australian Outback is one of the world’s last remaining large, natural regions and home to lush and inhospitable landscapes and an abundance of diverse wildlife. But the Outback is facing a threat from within as invasive plants and feral animals strain its ecosystem. 

One of the most significant risks to the region’s health is the booming population of feral camels, which eat more than 80 percent of the Outback’s plant species—more than any other animal. The camels don’t just decimate plants; they also harm salt lake ecosystems, pollute waterholes, and trample desert dunes, which can lead to erosion.

Brought to Australia in the 1800s for transport and help with construction projects in the central and western parts of the country, many camels were later released into the wild. By 2010, scientists estimated that up to 1 million feral camels roamed the Outback and the government introduced a control program to reduce their number. The plan succeeded, dropping the overall population to about 300,000. Still, camels can double their numbers in just eight to 10 years, so they remain an overwhelming presence in some areas.

“It’s important for all Australians to work for a naturally and culturally healthy Outback, which includes reducing the number of feral camels,” says Barry Traill, who directs Pew’s work in Australia to conserve the Outback. 

Without an increased commitment from federal and state governments to reduce the camel population and ensure the animals’ long-term management, working in coordination with Indigenous and non-Indigenous landholders, feral camels will cause lasting damage to the Australian Outback. 

—Eric Wrona

IV. Never Married? In Philadelphia, You’re Not Alone

More than half of adults in Philadelphia—51.5 percent—have never been married, a percentage that ranks highest among the 10 largest U.S. cities and one that’s been trending upward over the past decade. 

According to data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, Philadelphia’s proportion of unmarried people surpasses those of Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Houston, San Diego, Dallas, Phoenix, San Antonio, and San Jose, California, all of which saw the size of their never-married population increase from 2005 to 2015. During that period, the national unmarried rate rose as well; it’s now 33.5 percent. 

One factor in explaining the rise is that people are marrying later in life. “Nationwide, the average age for first marriage has increased from 26.2 in 2005 to 28.7 in 2015,” says Larry Eichel, who directs Pew’s Philadelphia research initiative. And Philadelphia has seen a big increase in its young adult population in recent years. 

While Philadelphia’s never-married rate is higher than those of the nation’s largest cities, it does not stand out among cities with levels of poverty similar to Philadelphia’s 26 percent. Among the 10 highest-poverty cities with populations of at least 350,000, Philadelphia’s percentage of never-married adults is close to the middle. Those cities, ranked by percentage, include Detroit; Baltimore; Milwaukee; Cleveland; New Orleans; Memphis, Tennessee; Tucson, Arizona; Fresno, California; and Miami. 

“It’s well established in sociological studies that marriage rates rise with income levels. Lower-income adults are less likely to be married than those with higher incomes,” Eichel says. “Since Philadelphia has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation, having a large number of unmarried people here is not surprising.” 

Nationally, the unmarried trend looks poised to continue. The Pew Research Center estimates that a quarter of today’s young adults will remain unmarried when they reach 45 to 54 years of age—an unprecedented number.

—Kimberly Burge

V. Shark Tourism Boosts the Bahamian Economy

Shark tourism

A tiger shark in The Bahamas. (© Shutterstock)

Advocates for endangered shark and ray species have long believed that policies promoting healthy shark populations might also confer significant economic benefits—and a new study shows they are right.

Scientists from the Cape Eleuthera Institute in The Bahamas have found that sharks and rays contributed $114 million to the Bahamian economy in 2014, with 99 percent of that revenue generated by tourism.

Published in the journal Biological Conservation in March, the study says 19,000 divers—or 43 percent of all dive tourists visiting The Bahamas that year—came primarily to see sharks. These recreational divers spent $49 million, which circulated through the national economy and ultimately contributed $109 million to the Bahamian gross domestic product. The research is the first to estimate the full economic impact of shark-related activities in the Atlantic Ocean archipelago southeast of Florida. 

“Although we’ve long understood sharks are important to The Bahamas’ economy, quantifying this was a critical step to assessing the value of the nation’s conservation measures,” says Edward Brooks, the marine biologist who spearheaded the research, which was supported by Pew.

Luke Warwick, who directs Pew’s shark conservation efforts, says the findings demonstrate the value sharks have beyond their critical role as predators in ocean food webs. 

“This research proves that sharks are not only important for ocean health, but can also provide economic stability,’’ Warwick says. “In The Bahamas, home to one of the world’s largest shark dive tourism economies, sharks are worth a lot more alive than dead.”

The Bahamas has a long history of protecting its shark populations. In the early 1990s, the country banned longline fishing—a primary driver of the unintentional catching and killing of sharks—and in 2011 declared its entire exclusive economic zone a shark sanctuary. That act ended all commercial shark fishing in Bahamian waters and included a ban on the trade, sale, and possession of sharks or their parts. 

Actions by The Bahamas ensure that sharks are protected in the nation’s waters. But these highly migratory species lose that status as soon as they swim beyond those boundaries, highlighting the importance of coupling local conservation efforts with international trade restrictions.

Warwick says the study’s findings could help encourage other governments in the region—and globally—to act to protect vital shark species.

—Michael Remez