Kids eat right.

Get to Know Your 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 meal enjoyed with friends, we all remember the time spent in the school cafeteria. The National School Lunch Program 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 ensure that healthful lunches are affordable to all.

Thanks to the USDA's Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, school meals look a lot like MyPlate, the government's roadmap for nutritious eating. MyPlate creates a common language for school nutrition professionals and students and the accompanying visual helps school children connect to the food they see on their plates.  A new rule implemented in 2018 titled “Child Nutrition Programs: Flexibilities for Milk, Whole Grains, and Sodium Requirements” offers alternative options for schools that may be struggling to meet the demands of the 2010 Act. 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 schools should serve to students are prescribed by the USDA, and each state administers the program. 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 include more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, fewer calories and less sodium. Additionally, the 2018 rule change will extend the deadline for schools to meet the sodium restriction.

Times are Changing

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 students had warmed up to the new lunches and generally liked them. The 2018 flexibility rules are expected to further increase student enjoyment of the meals provided by schools. 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?

A Bigger Focus on Fruits and Vegetables

Potentially the most powerful MyPlate message is advice to fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables at each meal. Schools serve fruit every day at breakfast as well as a fruit and a vegetable at lunch. School nutrition professionals understand that increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables on the menu doesn't always mean kids will eat more of them. Schools are becoming more strategic about serving produce in ways that will increase kids' interest and consumption. That means slicing fruit and vegetables into bite-sized pieces and serving them with dips, tossing fruit into yogurt parfaits, and mixing vegetables into side dishes such as brown rice, grain salads and roasted potatoes.

Grains Are a Whole Lot Healthier

In keeping with MyPlate's message to make at least half of all grains whole, schools are working with suppliers to boost whole grains in bread, tortillas, pizza crust and pasta. They also are incorporating more whole-grain flour into baked goods such as muffins and pancakes. However, some schools have struggled to find whole-grain products that fit within the budget and cater to students tastes. The 2018 rule will allow petitioning schools to choose refined grains when whole-grain is not a viable option.

Protein Slims Down

Most school-aged kids need 4 to 6½ ounces of protein each day. To keep it heart-healthy, MyPlate encourages fish, skinless chicken and lean meat as well as plenty of plant-based protein. That means more oven-baked fish nuggets, chicken teriyaki, and beef and bean burritos on whole-wheat tortillas. When it comes to plant-based protein, schools are getting creative — they're offering options such as tofu stir-fries and bean burgers and tacos.

Milk Got a Makeover

MyPlate isn't just about what's on the plate. Drinks count too. Previously, only about a third of schools provided exclusively low or non-fat milk. The 2018 rule now allows schools to offer 1 percent chocolate milk to encourage milk intake, in addition to the regular fat-free version, 1 percent and fat-free milk options. To help kids get even more of the bone-building calcium they need, schools also are jumping on the growing popularity of low-fat yogurt, serving up low-fat yogurt cups and parfaits and even yogurt-based dips.

Getting Financial Assistance

If you're having trouble paying for your children's lunch, your family may be eligible for free or reduced cost lunches 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!