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What you need to know about school lunch

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

I spent my first 7 years as a dietitian planning menus and managing foodservice operations for a school district of over 20,000 students. On one hand, it was an incredibly rewarding experience. On the other hand, it was quite challenging. Have you ever worked really hard on something just to have everyone offer their two cents on how you could have done better? That’s school lunch. More often than not, school lunch is a buzzword that gets all the wrong kind of buzz.

Sure, there is a lot of room for improvement in many school districts nationwide. There is a need for increased funding and for more nutrition experts working directly with districts to implement positive changes and develop innovative and nutritious menus. But, in my experience, there is also a lack of knowledge when it comes to the school lunch program. People simply don’t understand what’s going on in their child’s cafeteria. So I’d like to fill you in a bit. My goal here is not to convince you how to feed your child. My goal is simple: to inform and raise awareness so that you can make an educated decision when it comes to brown bagging it – or not.

kids looking out the window of a bus

Federal Regulations

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is a USDA-funded program that provides reimbursement to schools for meals served to students. As with most federal and state programs, the NSLP is highly regulated, and there are very strict guidelines that districts must follow in order to participate in the program. The program was first established under the National School Lunch Act of 1946 and has grown substantially over the decades. Now, over 30 million children participate in school lunch nationwide. We have seen meal participation decline during the COVID-19 pandemic as many children participate in virtual or at-home learning, but this program continues to be hugely impactful across the United States.

With child obesity rates on the rise, The Healthy-Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA) revamped the way America was doing school lunch. The new regulations aimed to increase fruits, vegetables and whole grains while reducing saturated fat, sugar and sodium. Let’s break down some of the specifics here.

  • Every lunch is made up of 5 different components (or food groups): grain, meat/meat alternate, fruit, vegetable, and milk. This aligns with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and MyPlate.

  • In most districts, students build their own meal based on the 5 food components. A student must choose at least 3 of the 5 meal components, but can decline up to 2 if desired. This gives students autonomy over what they eat and saves on food waste. Sometimes this can really rub adults the wrong way if they perceive that the student is not getting a well-balanced meal based on his/her choices.

  • Every student is required to take 1/2 cup of fruit or vegetable on their tray. I have to admit, when this guideline was first rolled out, we saw a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables end up in the trash. It was disheartening. As a result, many districts implemented “share tables” that would allow students to put uneaten items such as pre-packaged foods, whole fruit and unopened milk in a designated area for other students to enjoy. In time, we saw food waste decline, and the number of fruits and vegetables served each day continued to increase. Students were taking more fruit and more vegetables, and they were actually eating them.

  • Meals must meet specific requirements for calories, saturated fat, and sodium. These requirements vary based on student age/grade level.

  • There’s a heck of a lot more I could break down for you, but that would bore you to tears.

Food for Thought

I believe that the HHFKA was a move in the right direction.

I can honestly say that there are school districts nationwide that are knocking it out of the park. It’s becoming more common to see fresh fruit and vegetable salad bars, innovative recipes, a wide variety of food selections, and from-scratch cooking. But I can’t speak for every school district in America. There are still many districts out there that need to step up their game, and there are still many challenges to overcome.

Girl smiling for a picture at the lunch table

Currently, budgets are still very limited and districts are forced to control food costs through the use of government commodities and lower-priced (sometimes lower quality) products. Districts are still serving highly processed foods. Sometimes, with all the regulations and budget restrictions, it just feels like the simplest option. In addition, processed foods like chicken nuggets and fish sticks are often perceived as the most “kid-friendly”. For me, this was one of the most challenging parts of the job, and I rejected the notion that students would only eat with us if we served up sugary breakfast cereals and fried foods. Although we offered items like burgers and nuggets, we balanced these out with plenty of from-scratch entrees like homemade lasagna, pulled pork, and beef stew. If you can make food that is familiar and tastes good, kids will choose spaghetti & meatballs over a hot dog. Kudos to the districts out there that are providing delicious, nourishing, from-scratch meals to students.

Sodium content, although regulated, is still very high. The HHFKA established a gradual sodium reduction that would allow time for manufacturer’s to reformulate products and for student taste preferences to adjust. Initially, there were 3 sodium “targets” that would reduce the amount of sodium allowed in school meals. It was meant to be a gradual reduction with the final target going into effect in school year 2022-2023. With administration changes and the COVID-19 pandemic, we continue to see a lot of flexibility with this rule. Over a decade later, many districts are still following Target 1.

Similarly, we have seen a lot of back-and-forth and flexibility around the amount of whole grains served in school meals. Dietary recommendations for the general population state that half of the grains we eat should be whole grains. Currently, all grains served in schools are required to be "whole grain-rich". In school lunch world, a food is considered “whole grain-rich” if at least half of the product is whole grain. So, in theory, if all grains served are "whole-grain rich", students would be getting about half of their grains as whole grains. However, in recent years, school districts have been given flexibility to accommodate student taste preferences and supply chain shortages. As a result, many districts are not meeting this recommendation for their students.

Many districts have chefs onsite that develop recipes, train staff, and educate students. It’s amazing to see a team of chefs collaborate with dietitians to come up with food that is both delicious and nutritious. School food can be really tasty, but you have to stop comparing it to restaurant food. It is NOT restaurant food. Cutting fat, sugar and sodium and swapping out refined grains for whole grains makes food taste different. It doesn’t mean that the food doesn’t taste good, but it will taste different than what you might get from your local burger or pizza joint. I can honestly say that I have eaten school food that tastes better than some restaurant food, so I encourage you to be open-minded and give it a try.

Chefs posting for a photo in the kitchen

If your child isn’t making healthy choices at home, he/she probably isn’t making healthy choices at school either. While there are often healthy options to choose from at school, many students will opt for more processed and less nutritious foods if that is what’s most familiar to them. I can’t tell you how many times I walked up and down the cafeteria aisles observing what students had brought from home. It was uncommon to see fresh fruits, vegetables, or whole grains in a student’s lunchbox. In contrast, the students that purchased school lunch had fresh fruits & veggies from the salad bar, milk, protein, and whole grains. Not every tray was a perfect model of a balanced meal, but, holy cow, was I proud when I saw students load up on all the good stuff.

Healthy choices begin in the home. As parents, we do our best to be positive role models and provide nutritious, balanced meals. The next step is giving our children the opportunity to make their own healthy choices away from home - a skill they need to master if you want to foster a lifelong healthy relationship with food. If you’re struggling with this, we can help! As pediatric dietitians, we coach parents through nutrition challenges and help them raise healthy, happy eaters. Check out our counseling services here.

Lastly, school lunch programs have not gone untouched during the COVID-19 pandemic. Supply chain issues have greatly impacted school lunch menus, and in effect, negatively impacted the nutrition in some school meals. With that said, the School Breakfast Program and National School Lunch Program are essential for many, many children nationwide, and for some children, meals served at school may be the only meals or the most nourishing meals they receive in a day. There is also a huge benefit to parents who may feel overwhelmed now ( #pandemicparenting ) or in everyday life, as school meals can relieve parents of one small burden and lighten their load a bit - we could all use a little help right now. When we stigmatize school meals, this carries over to the families that benefit from them and, in many cases, need these programs to survive.

If you have questions about your child’s lunch program, I highly encourage you to join them for lunch one day. See for yourself. Are they being offered a variety of foods? How does the food taste? What is customer service like in the lunch line? If you are impressed, give a lunch lady (or gent) a high five! If you are less than impressed, consider providing constructive feedback to the department, write your local congressman and ask for increased funding, or join your district’s School Health Advisory Council (SHAC). But still, give a lunch lady (or gent) a high five! Even if school lunch isn’t for you or your child, please be respectful and kind to the staff that comes in at the crack of dawn, before anyone else on campus, to roll kolaches by hand, scramble eggs, and wash hundreds of apples before the sun comes up. He or she may know your little one by name, may have helped them through the tough day they were having, or protected them against potential allergic reactions. They’re the real MVPs.

I’d like to leave you with this Ted Talk by Jarrett J. Krosoczka. If you have 5 minutes, it’s a powerful message that touches my heart every time I listen to it.



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