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Get to Know Your School Lunch Program

Contributors: Andrea Johnson, RD, CSP, LDN

Reviewers: Academy Nutrition Information Services Team

Published: July 02, 2021

Reviewed: April 27, 2023

Get to Know Your School Lunch Program
XiXinXing/iStock / Getty Images Plus

Whether it is a wonderful memory of cafeteria staff  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 available 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.  

Who Makes the Rules?

Regulations regarding what kinds of foods schools should serve to students are approved by the USDA, and each state administers the program. In 2007, the USDA reported that school meals were not providing a variety of whole grains, fruits and vegetables and were serving a higher than recommended amount 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 requirements, which included more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, fewer calories and less sodium. A new rule titled "Child Nutrition Programs: Flexibilities for Milk, Whole Grains, and Sodium Requirements," which went into effect in 2019, offers more flexibility for menu planning in schools compared to the original 2010 Act. 

Here's what you need to know about today's school lunch programs. 

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 Getting a Whole Lot Healthier

In keeping with MyPlate's message to make at least half of all grains whole, schools are boosting whole grains in bread, tortillas, pizza crust and pasta so that half of the grains offered at breakfast and lunch each week are from whole-grain sources. They also are incorporating more whole-grain flour into baked goods such as muffins and pancakes.

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. This might include menu items such as oven-baked fish nuggets, chicken teriyaki and lean beef or 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. The latest rule now allows schools to offer 1% flavored milk to encourage drinking milk, in addition to unflavored fat-free and low-fat options.

Getting Financial Assistance

If you're having trouble paying for your child'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 your child's school. If your child has medical condition 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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