The Dish on School Lunch


Recently, we wrote an article discussing the troubling trend of cutting recess and other physical activities from school days. This week, we will discuss school nutrition. Both of these items go hand in hand towards fighting childhood obesity, improving student focus and behavior, and boosting academic achievement.

Between the First Lady’s Let’s Move initiative, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act passage in 2010 and the many media stories in between, there’s been a lot of coverage about school nutrition, but just how does all of it work?

First, let’s take a look at the history

Despite the many changes you may have heard about over the last year – the federal school meal program is nothing new. In 1946 Congress passed the School Nutrition Act to establish the beginnings of the National School Lunch Program we know today. Ever since then , Congress has reauthorized the program every 5-10 years, making improvements like the addition of breakfast, afterschool feeding programs, and nutrition standards for all foods kids can purchase at school. And while the latest nutrition updates have gained considerable media attention, Congress has been updating nutrition guidelines for school lunches for decades, following the latest nutrition science (known as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans).

Who runs the program?

For the purpose of today’s post, we’ll just focus on the National School Lunch Program.  Most public schools participate in the program, providing meals to over 29 million children each school day. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers the program at the federal level. In your state, the program is most likely administered by the state education agency, working directly with the school food personnel in your school district.

How does it work?

In exchange for serving meals that meet nutrition guidelines, schools receive reimbursement through cash subsidies and USDA food subsidies. Many of us are aware that schools are subsidized for meals served to students who qualify for free or reduced lunch, but did you realize schools receive a reimbursement for every meal served to students – regardless if they qualify for free or reduced lunch? Here’s the rate for the 2013-2014 School Year:

Family income level: Student eligible for: USDA pays school:
At or below 130 percent of the poverty   level Free Lunch $2.93
Between 130 percent and 185 percent of   the poverty level Reduced-Price $2.53
Above 185 percent the poverty level Full-Price Lunch $ .28

*AK and HI receive higher rates; Schools with 60% or more students qualifying for free/reduced lunch receive additional $ .02 for each meal served. Source: Food Research and Action Center

What are the nutrition guidelines?

Beginning last school year, schools began implementing updated nutrition guidelines in accordance with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. In general, this means that school meals now include more fruits, vegetables and whole grains and less unhealthy fats; the amount of sodium in meals is capped; and the maximum calorie amount is based on grade levels.  The National PTA Parents’ Guide to the National School Lunch Program provides specific details on the nutrition updates.

Why updated nutrition guidelines?

Nutrition guidelines for school meals have been in place for decades. In 2010, child advocates – including PTA members across the country – recognized the grave need to align nutrition guidelines with the most updated nutrition science and pressured Congress to pass the bipartisan Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act.

The facts on childhood obesity are alarmingly clear. Over the past three decades, childhood obesity rates in the United States have tripled. Today, more than 23 million children and teens are overweight or obese. The Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation published research last year showing that, unless Americans change their ways, more than 44 percent of adults will be obese by 2030. Not just overweight, but obese.

So why schools? Not only is nutrition critical to students’ academic success and health, schools are also a place of habit-building whether in the classroom or in the lunchroom. Just as students develop lifelong skills at schools like teamwork, persistence, and critical thinking that transcend into adulthood, habits in the breakfast and lunchroom can carry over far past graduation.

But can schools do this?

Yes! At the end of the 2012-2013 school year, 79% of participating schools across the country reported being in compliance, and in six states there was nearly 100% compliance.  It’s important to keep in mind that the school meals program serves over 29 million students a day.  Accordingly, change isn’t always going to be easy or quick.

What’s the role for parents?

Engage with your kids and your school – just as you would around any other issue in the school. Here are some tips:

Supporting your kids:

  • Review the school menu and ask your child what he or she ate at school.
  • Talk with your child about how the school lunch will make them healthier, stronger and happier. (Elementary/Middle School students)
  • Feed your child more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains at home so they are familiar with them  at school.
  • Volunteer, if possible, at the school during breakfast or lunch times to observe the changes for yourself.
  • Bring the healthy improvements in the cafeteria home with you – ask your kids to point out foods at the grocery store that are served at school.
  • Enjoy as many family meals as possible together – it’s one of the best opportunities to support your child’s health, learning, and social and emotional development.

Supporting your school and other students:

  • Contact your school district or principal and ask how you can support them.
  • Engage other parents to support the school nutrition program by discussing the changes at PTA meetings .
  • Offer to organize a “taste test” of new recipes and foods.
  • Join your school’s wellness committee.
  • If you see something that doesn’t fit with these new guidelines, share the USDA’s information about the new school lunch guidelines with school leaders and thank them for helping your child and every child to be healthier and stronger.
  • And even if you pack your child’s lunch and will continue to do so, bear in mind Standard 4 of the National Family School Partnerships: Speaking up for Every Child. This means that PTA members consider what’s in the best interest for all children. Nearly 20 million students each day depend on the National School Lunch Program for a healthy, nutritious meal.

What’s Next:  

Schools will continue to update and improve the school lunch and breakfast offerings over the school year.  Next school year, nutrition guidelines for school snacks and meal options, including those sold in a la carte lines, vending machines and school stores will also be healthier! Stay tuned to the blog for specific updates related to smarter snacks in school.

Additional Resources:


Mollie Van Lieu a Senior Education Policy Strategist at National PTA. Contact Mollie at

Speak Your Mind