Healthier School Meals: First in Line

In 2012 the US Department of Agriculture released new nutrition standards that schools across the country are working to implement in their cafeterias. The USDA’s standards require more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat milk, and less sodium and unhealthy saturated and trans fats. At a 96% success rate, schools are meeting the standards that hadn’t been changed since 1995, and growing knowledge of healthy and balanced meals has students across America lining up.

What’s On the Menu?

School are working to provide both tasty and better balanced meals to the 31 million children who are active in the National School Meal Program. Students consume roughly half of their daily calories at school if they eat breakfast and lunch, so meals have been adjusted to be higher in protein and reasonable in calories, while aiming for balance between the food groups. In 2014, nearly one-third of schools offered self-serve salad bars, and more than half of schools now use fresh or frozen vegetables instead of canned; thirty percent more schools are replacing or reducing sodium in their meals since 2000. Recent studies also show that schools are improving in other categories, finding that students are consuming more milk, fruits, vegetables, and key nutrients (like calcium and fiber) than than kids who don’t participate in meal programs.

Calorie Counters

School lunches are based on an 850-calorie max for high school students, which some argue may not be enough. Parents are worried about their kids not getting enough to eat with the new standards, especially when they are involved in sports and other activities. However, according to the USDA, based on an 1800 to 2200 calorie diet, 850 calories is an appropriate standard. What’s more, the Center for Science of Public Health says meals most people consider to be filling, such as a McDonald’s Double Cheeseburger with a Medium French Fry or a Subway Roast Beef Footlong with Sun Chips, contain roughly the same amount of calories. The Center also added that before the new standards, high school students were offered 857 calories, but typically only took 787. If students understand how much is offered to them, they won’t go hungry.

Bread to be Healthy

The federal government spends $15 billion a year on school lunch programs; these healthier, nutritious meals will benefit kids long after they’re out of school. If healthy food is put in front of children at an early age, they’re more likely to develop habits that carry over into adulthood and benefit taxpayers in the long run. Diseases associated with obesity account for $190 billion a year in national health care costs, and cutting down on that number by even a fraction will make a huge difference for taxpayers and the 23 million children and teens who are overweight or obese. The USDA projects an 8 percent increase in funding, or about $3.2 billion over five years, in order to fulfill the updated standards; this allows for a 6-cent added reimbursement, which has proven in recent years to be more than enough to meet standards.

Slip on your Oven Mitts

Schools have made vast improvements to their programs and there are still steps they can take to further improve nutrition services. One strategy encourages school officials to adjust their budgets to ensure kitchens have proper equipment to prepare and serve fruits and vegetables, such as food processors, knife sets, and refrigerators. Another suggests on-going training for school-nutrition professionals in order to maintain and increase nutrition awareness. Implementation of more self-serve salad bars provides students both with a healthy option and a way to practice preparing their own healthy meals. Many schools also run into picky-eaters, wherein taste tests, creative marketing/presentation of foods, and offering multiple choices within food components can be the key to healthier eaters that can make kids want to be at the front of the line.


What were your school meals like as a kid? Do you think these standards will help kids in the long run?