School Lunch


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School Lunch

When was the last time you ate school lunch? You may have heard that a lot has changed since you were in school, most siginficantly new nutrition standards. Let's go over the basics.

How does the National School Lunch Program work, anyway?  

All different kinds of schools participate in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), like public schools, non-profit private schools and residential child care centers. The federal government reimburses schools and school districts that participate a certain amount of money for each meal they serve. That amount depends on if the meal is a free, reduced-price or full-price meal. 

Here’s the catch: To get the money, schools must provide meals that meet nutrition standards, and they have to offer free or reduced-price meals to kids that qualify. Schools can get extra money (6 cents each meal—it all adds up!) if they meet the newest federal meal standards. So beyond improving the health and learning of students, there’s a lot of incentive for schools to ensure kids are participating in the school lunch program. 

Has school lunch really gotten healthier? 

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA) secured historic reforms to school meals and the entire school food environment. Improving child nutrition was the focal point of this landmark legislation. It authorized funding and set policy for USDA’s core child nutrition programs including the NSLP, the School Breakfast Program (SBP) and the Summer Food Service Program, among others. To get those extra pennies from the government, school meals must contain: 

  • 1 half-cup serving of fruits or veggies. Veggies can be a legume (like beans, peas), dark green AND red or orange once per week. 

  • Grains must be 51% or more whole grain, though some schools can request an exemption. 

  • One cup of fat-free (skim) or low-fat (1%) milk . Flavored milk must be fat-free.  

A few other things to know 

  • Calorie requirements per lunch vary by grade:

    • Kindergarten through fifth-grade students get 550-650 calories

    • Sixth through eighth-grade studentes get 600-700 calories

    • Ninth through 12-grade students get 750-850 calories  

  • Fats are limited, allowing for no trans fats and not more than 10% of calories from fat.  

  • Schools were required to slowly decrease sodium levels by 2022, but this requirement was delayed in 2017.  

  • Kids must have access to free drinking water in the cafeteria during lunch. 

How You Can Help 

Despite the new nutrition standards, food service managers are not unlike parents when it comes to the challenges of getting kids to eat a healthy meal or try new foods. They want to make sure they’re serving meals that kids enjoy AND they don’t like to see food wasted. If they think that students will be less likely to buy healthier meals or will toss the veggies, they will be hesitant to incorporate changes. 

If you want to make changes, here are a few ideas and things to keep in mind as you embark on becoming a lunchroom hero. 

  • Establish a friendly relationship with food service personnel. Express interest in learning about how school meals work and the challenges they face.  

  • Familiarize yourself with the nutrition standards that your district is required to follow at the federal, state and local level.  

  • Focus on maintaining or increasing participation as an essential part of your efforts to improve school meals. Marketing with posters and flyers at back-to-school night, taste tests with students and improving the cafeteria environment can go a long way. 

  • Add a salad bar, which gives students more options to choose healthy foods on their own. 

  • Explore farm-to-cafeteria programs that can bring fresh, local produce and build bridges to the community and new learning opportunities for students. 

  • Make sure your school offers nutrition education to all students so they are selecting the healthy items in the cafeteria (and not demanding unhealthy items) 


Ready for more? Encourage your school take on the HealthierUS School Challenge: Smarter Lunchrooms initiative—Action for Healthy Kids can help! Remember to visit Like a Boss for more tips on how to work with school leaders and school food service staff. 

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