Get to Know Today's School Lunch Program

By Andrea Johnson, RD, CSP, LDN
Get to Know Your School Lunch Program


The mention of school lunch conjures up all sorts of images. Whether it is a wonderful memory of a cafeteria staff person or a favorite — or least favorite — meal, we all remember the time spent in the school cafeteria. The National School Lunch Program as we know it today was established in 1946 to provide students access to nutritionally balanced meals. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA, continues to fund the program and to assure that healthy lunches are affordable to all. Here's what you need to know about today's school lunch programs. Tweet this

Who Makes the Rules?

Regulations regarding what kinds of foods should be served to students are prescribed by the USDA, and each state administers the program in its own schools. In 2008, the Institute of Medicine reported that children who ate school lunches consumed few fruits and vegetables and high amounts of saturated fat and sodium. The concerning state of affairs prompted changes in the program. The 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act mandated updates to the meal prescriptions, which now include more fruits, vegetables and whole grains and less calories and sodium.

Times Have Changed

Indeed, it does seem that despite initial resistance to updates in the program by some foodservice directors, parents and especially students, the tide of public opinion has gradually changed. A study published in the journal Childhood Obesity found that 70 percent of elementary school leaders said that students had warmed up to the new lunches and generally liked them. According Aliza Stern, RD, Mid-Atlantic Regional Dietitian for Chartwells K12 (a company that provides meals and dining services for school districts), the new norm of healthier eating is catching on in the schools she works with as well. "We are offering such a great variety of fresh fruits and vegetables these days, some even grown in gardens on school campuses, that kids are used to it, they get excited about it, and they are actually eating it," she says.

The National School Lunch Program is touted as an important public effort to prevent obesity and improve children's eating habits, but does it deliver?

"I have worked with many parents who start out skeptical about school lunch because of their own experience from when they were in school," says Stern. "Once they actually see what is being offered to our students, they are so pleased and eager to get their student to start buying lunch."

Getting Help

If you're having trouble paying for your children's lunch, your family may be eligible for free or reduced cost lunch through the USDA. Income eligibility guidelines can be found on the USDA's website. If your family meets the income guidelines and you have not yet filled out an application, be sure to request one from the school. If your child has medical or other special dietary needs, talk to the school foodservice director about accommodations. Want to know more about what's happening in your child's school? Get to know your foodservice and nutrition staff!

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