Over the last few years, the meals being served in schools have
generated a lot of negative attention. Whether you’ve watched
it exposed on television with Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution or have
listened to the First Lady speak about it, the chances are high that
you’ve at least heard about school lunches being blamed for contributing
to our youth’s obesity epidemic. Although it may be easy to
blame the schools or the infamous lunch ladies, the problem of low
quality school lunches is much more complex. The National
School Lunch Program’s foundation, including its funding sources,
nutrition standards and meal requirements, needs to be looked at to
understand why schools have been compromising the quality of their
food.HISTORY OF THE NATIONAL SCHOOL LUNCH PROGRAM
Before we can assess the quality of the
program, let’s first take a look at what it stands for. The federally
funded National School Lunch Program (NSLP) was founded in 1946 to
provide a “measure of national security, to safeguard the health and
well-being of the nation’s children”.[i] At that time, the
major nutritional concerns were nutrient deficiencies that linked to
common illnesses such as scurvy and rickets.
program serves more than 30 million children per day and has provided
more than 219 billion lunches since its inception. While diet and health
information have come a long way in the last 65 years, the NSLP has
been updated a mere three times.[ii] Its latest update in January 2011
(15 years following the previous update) announced plans to serve better
food to help fight childhood obesity.DIETARY GUIDELINES
So what are the nutritional standards
of your children’s school lunch? The U.S. Department of
Agriculture (USDA) guidelines provide the blueprint of all federal
nutrition programs and are supposed to represent the most current and
sound scientific information available.
school lunches are to abide by the USDA Dietary Guidelines for
Americans. For the last 15 years, the guidelines recommended
each meal should have no more than 30 percent of its calories coming
from fat and less than 10 percent from saturated fat. In addition, the
meal had to provide one-third of the Recommended Dietary Allowances of
protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, and calories. Decisions
about what food to serve and how that food is prepared are made by local
school food authorities,[iii] operating under budget constraints,
varying kitchen capacities and limited food choices.
The newest updates are seeking to address the country’s obesity
epidemic by limiting the amount of calories and sodium contained in each
meal schools serve.iii Some of the specifics include:
- Establishing the first calorie limits for school
- Gradually reducing the amount of sodium in the meals over 10
- Banning most trans fats.
- Requiring more servings of fruits and vegetables.
- Requiring all milk served to be low fat or nonfat, and require
all flavored milks to be nonfat.
- Incrementally increasing the amount of whole grains served;
eventually requiring most grains to be whole
As a nutrition professional, I
find that high-sugar chocolate milk being deemed more acceptable than
natural, vitamin-rich whole milk is a step backwards. Scarier
is what serves as a whole grain in this context. We’re not talking about
quinoa, wild rice and oats. Under the revised guidelines, enriched
bread, pasta, pancakes or anything that has at least 51% of a
whole-grain product makes the grade.[iv]GOVERNMENT FUNDING AND FOOD COST
majority of costs to provide meals to students are provided through
government funding. Schools that choose to take part in the
lunch program get cash subsidies and donated commodities from the
USDA. In return, they must serve lunches that meet federal
requirements and they must offer free or reduced price lunches to
The government currently pays
schools in 48 contiguous states between $2.32 and $2.89 for each lunch
they serve through the program. Schools fully utilize those funds to pay
for the food costs, labor and storage. If we think solely
about the cost of quality food, two to three dollars doesn’t seem like
enough to cover the costs. And for most schools, it’s not.
Additional resources can be fond in at the links
This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of
disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an
alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other
articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.
[i] Stallings, Virginia. Nutrition Standards and Meal Requirements for National School Lunch and Break Programs: Phase I. Statement to Congress, May 14 2009.
[ii] National School Lunch Program. Program Fact Sheet. USDA. www.fns.usda.gov (2011)
[iii] Mclean, Mac. USDA Unveils New School Lunch Rules. January 14, 2011.
[iv] Department of Agriculture. Federal Register: Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs; Proposed Rule. Vol. 76; No. 9. (2011)