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School lunch has a bad reputation. Popular culture has more or less demonized the lunch lady and many believe that the offerings from the school cafeteria are nutritionally inadequate and unappealing.
The reality is that it is difficult for schools to provide the freshest, healthiest, most nutritionally sound meals for all students. Schools must work within the constraints of government regulation to provide an optimally nutritious meal while serving hundreds of children in a specific time frame, minimizing food waste, and, most importantly, doing all this within a limited budget.
Part 1 of a 4-part Back to School series, this week’s blog tackles an important facet of any school day: lunch! We’ll take a look at the evolution of the National School Lunch Program, current school meal requirements, and offer some easy meal ideas for the busy school days ahead.
National School Lunch Program
The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) debuted in 1946 as a result of the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act (NSLA) signed into law by President Harry S. Truman. The intended benefits of the law are twofold. Besides providing school lunch for a free or reduced rate for low income families, the NSLA also bolsters food prices by using crop surpluses for the school lunch program.
Over the past 75 years, the school lunch program has evolved. Listed below are some of the most influential pieces of legislation to affect the school lunch program.
Child Nutrition Act of 1966
Signed into law on October 11, 1966 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Childhood Nutrition Act sought to build upon and expand the NSLA to provide free or low cost nutrition to children in public schools, nonprofit private schools, and childcare institutions and encourage domestic consumption of agricultural goods. It extended the Special Milk Program, introduced the School Breakfast Program, and allowed schools to use federal funds for “non-food expenses”, such as purchasing food equipment.
During a time when inflation and balancing the budget were high priorities, Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan signed these laws, which, among other budget cuts, reduced federal funding for the NSLA.
Notable changes included lowering the qualifying income level for reduced price meals, reduction in minimum portion sizes, and elimination of federal assistance for non-food expenses. As a result, many students and schools withdrew from the program because of the increased cost and decline in food quality.
These budget cuts gave way to the infamous “ketchup as a vegetable” controversy, which stemmed from proposed regulations that allowed schools to consider condiments, such as pickle relish and ketchup, as vegetables. Criticism was fast and fierce, however, and lawmakers quickly abandoned the idea.
Note: Concentrated tomato products, such as tomato paste and puree concentrate, still count toward vegetable requirements. In fact, the most recent guidance allows these products to be credited by their “whole food equivalency”, meaning the volume of tomatoes prior to pureeing, rather than their actual volume. Ketchup is specifically not allowed as a vegetable under the new guidelines.
Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010
Nearly 30 years later, President Barack Obama signed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) into law in 2010, with the goal of improving the standard of nutrition for millions of children nationwide.
Included as part of the reform is a new set of guidelines outlined by the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), which aim to increase the nutritional quality of food offerings and federal funding to the program over time. The new guidelines, which are based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, are intended to increase the consumption of fruit, vegetables, and whole grains, while minimizing intakes of sodium, saturated fat, and trans fat.
The CFR also establishes nutritional metrics that schools must adhere to should they wish to be reimbursed for the cost by the USDA.
Let’s take a closer look at the components of a reimbursable meal.
What Constitutes a Reimbursable Meal?
Currently, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) requires 5 components, each with daily and weekly minimums.
Fresh, frozen, dried, canned (in light syrup, water, or fruit juice), or pasteurized fruit juice may count toward fruit servings. The amount of juice offered must be less than half of the total fruit offering for the week.
This category is further divided into 5 categories – dark green, red/orange, legumes, starchy, and other. Each category must be offered in minimum amounts per week.
As of the 2019/2020 school year, 50% of grains offered must be whole-grain rich, the remaining must be enriched.
- Meats/meat alternatives
Meat alternatives may include beans, tofu, edamame, and yogurt.
- Fluid milk
Must be fat free or 1%.
For a more detailed look at the NSLP requirements, here’s a chart outlining the minimum serving sizes, caloric allotments per age group, and restrictions on sodium and saturated fat.
School breakfast requires three components:
- Fruit (or vegetable)
- Grains (or meat/meat alternatives can be offered in place up to 3 times per week)
- Fluid milk
Similar to the lunch requirements, school breakfast must also adhere to caloric windows per age group and limit saturated fat and sodium intake, as per the Dietary Guidelines.
The USDA requires that schools offer these components in order to receive funding. However, all of the components need not be actually served to a child in order for the meal to be deemed reimbursable. This distinction is explained by the concept of “offer versus serve”.
Offer versus Serve
The 5 components of the school lunch and 3 components of school breakfast constitute the minimum that schools must offer students in order to receive funding from the USDA, though there is room in the law that allows for some leeway in order to prevent food waste.
Offer versus serve (OVS) gives students an opportunity to refuse certain meal components they don’t intend to eat. Though there are still some limitations to this. For lunch, students must select at least 3 of the 5 meal components, and one of the choices must include a serving from the fruit or vegetable category.
At breakfast, schools are required to offer the 3 food components listed earlier and a minimum of 4 food options. Students must choose at least 3 food items with one of them being from the fruit or vegetable category under OVS.
In addition, school lunches have some competition, especially for older kids. A la carte lines, vending machines, and other options discourage students from selecting the reimbursable school lunch, often enticing students with tastier, though less nutritious fare. However, the USDA also provides criteria to encourage smart snacking in schools.
Certainly the system is not perfect, and healthy school lunch has a long way to go.
A Look to the Future
The HHFKA provides the framework for the long-term success of a healthier, more sustainable school lunch system, yet more people need to opt-in for schools to make improvements in food quality.
As a result of the pandemic, all children, regardless of income status, have been eligible for free meals in order to improve food security for children in these trying times. In addition, USDA reimbursement rates are higher when more than 60% of meals served in the previous year are offered for free.
According to the director of food service at our local school district, if students who normally don’t participate were to do so just a few times per week, the district might be able to provide grass fed beef, organic produce, and organic milk to all students. The Austin school district is also the first in Texas to sign on to the Good Food Purchasing Program, which encourages large institutions to make food purchases with community values, such as animal welfare, nutrition, workforce fairness, supporting local economies, and environmental sustainability. Pretty cool!
In addition, other services, such as food trucks, farm to school initiatives, and student taste tests for new menu items, may help meet the challenges of modern food service and student participation.
To Opt-In or Not to Opt-in?
Whether you choose to participate in the school lunch program or not is a personal choice, and not one that many parents make lightly.
Despite positive changes in recent years, school lunch requirements still remain at the minimum requirements for adequate nutrition for children and many prefer to make lunch from home instead.
To close, I’ll leave you with a few simple meal ideas that my family has come to rely on during school days. Since our daughter does participate in the school lunch program, I like to use the extra time and resources to focus on breakfast, snack, and dinner, prioritizing healthy fat, quality protein, and fresh fruits and vegetables.
Here are some of our favorite, simple meals for a typical school day.
A slice of whole grain toast with ¼ large avocado mashed, a hard-boiled egg, and a serving of seasonal fruit.
Roasted chicken, cubed cheese, steamed peas and carrots with a little butter, and a few squares of chocolate.
Handful of almonds and fresh berries.
Oven baked salmon with sweet potatoes and steamed broccoli.
Though my daughter is only 6, we talk about her food choices. We look at the school lunch (and breakfast) menu each day and discuss her options and what she likes and doesn’t like about school lunch. She tells me things like how she doesn’t like the broccoli at school, but loves the way I cook it. I gladly prepare it for her any chance I get.
I believe that involving children in food choices is vital for long term success. School lunch may not be perfect, but fortunately, improvements may be on the horizon.
About the author:
Karyn Lane is a current student of NTI’s Nutrition Therapist Master Program. She finds her chemistry degree a useful tool in her study of nutrition and loves to treat herself as a laboratory for new recipes and cooking techniques. You can follow her on Instagram @feel.alive.nourishment.
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